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On Leadership, Listening and Learning Arabic

May 9, 2019

By Sydney Colopy

Throughout her Duke career, Amulya Vadapalli PPS’19 has been preparing to make a difference. By advocating for issues she is passionate about and taking on numerous leadership roles, Vadapalli has been gathering the tools she needs to make an impact.

In addition to public policy, Vadapalli also majored in Arabic. In her first summer at Duke, she spent eight weeks studying Arabic in a no-English program at Middlebury College, and she now can converse fluently in Modern Standard Arabic.

Vadapalli said she chose to learn Arabic, “partly because it’s so beautiful, but also because there’s a lot of literature and knowledge in a language that’s that old.”

Vadapalli’s interest in foreign affairs influenced her work on projects and internships at Duke. “I’m passionate about the way that power relations in foreign policy allows and creates tragic situations, and what institutions we can build on a global scale to prevent that,” she said.

Internship in Amman

During the summer of 2017, Vadapalli applied both her new language skills and her interest in foreign policy during an internship in Amman, Jordan, with Tamkeen-Fields for Aid, an NGO that provides legal aid to migrant workers.

Vadapalli thought she would be helping the organization by conducting field research.

“I was super excited to be in that atmosphere of people doing work on the ground with the kind of people that put their life and soul into the work,” Vadapalli said. “But sometimes, what’s most helpful is not what you want to do, and if you want to be servicing the needs of the organization, then you should be listening to it.”

After realizing the value of listening in this situation, she was able to make a difference by completing a large research project comparing migrant labor laws around the world.

Senior Thesis: Yemen

Vadapalli continued to study foreign policy issues through her senior thesis project on the war in Yemen. By looking at how different people and entities involved in the conflict define justice, including Saudis, the U.S., international law, and Yemeni people, Vadapalli analyzed “how those conclusions differ or overlap in a way that might have an impact on a sustainable peace and justice process,” she said.

Vadapalli said through the thesis process, she learned an important lesson about being an advocate: knowing when to step back.

“There’s only so much information you can take in, she said. “There were days when I really wanted to go on researching, but I learned sometimes you just can’t because the information is so devastating that you’re hurting yourself as a researcher and an advocate, someone who cares deeply about the issue, if you don’t take a break.”

Campus Leadership 

Vadapalli has also worked to make a difference in the lives of her peers at Duke, holding numerous leadership roles with groups on campus. As a member of class council since her sophomore year and now as senior class president, she has aimed to not only throw fun events, but to create “an avenue that leads people to forge deeper connections,” she said.

As captain of Lasya, Duke’s student-run Indian classical dance group, Vadapalli said she was fortunate to find a community of dancers to help her escape from the stress of academics at Duke. A dancer from a young age, Vadapalli finds “there’s a lot of joy in focusing on things that make you happy like music and dance and not constantly thinking about war and terrible tragedies.”

Vadapalli also founded the Arabic Major’s Union to help build relationships between students and professors in the major.

Being a leader at Duke has meant “trying to find common ground between people without necessarily imposing your own opinion,” she said.

In recognition of her impact as a student leader on campus, Vadapalli is one of the 2019 recipients of the Forever Duke Student Leadership Award and is also receiving the Edward H. Beneson Award in the Arts. Vadapalli was selected as a 2019-2020 Hart Fellow and will continue to strive to make a difference by working in Amman, Jordan with the Collateral Repair Project on its efforts to aid Yemeni refugees.