Sanford students, both undergraduate and graduate, are always amazing. They come from all over the world, and just down the road in Durham. They start organizations, volunteer in the community, publish research, earn awards and develop friendships that have the potential to last a lifetime. If there was one word to describe this year’s graduates, that word would be “unstoppable.”
Here are some of the stories of the Class of 2021.
We will be updating this page with new stories throughout the week.
Sophia Katz PPS'21 combined her interests in markets and environmental policy in her thesis, Wasted Energy: Re-Directing Investment into Renewables through Environmental Policy, which received the Best Honors Thesis Award from the Sanford School of Public Policy. Read Sophia's story | Watch commencement address
Lauren Howell won the 2021 Terry Sanford Leadership Award from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. The prestigious award, named for the founder of the Sanford School of Public Policy, is presented annually to a graduating senior. Watch Lauren's story >>
Graduation often brings to mind students donning their caps and gowns. Merlin Yunaniar—a 2021 MIDP graduate from Indonesia—has already worn many hats during her studies.
“In 2019, I came to Duke with my husband and my four-year-old son. In 2020, we had our second child, a baby girl,” said Yunaniar. “It was not easy to be an international student, a wife, and a mother at the same time.”
Added to Yunaniar’s responsibilities was her role as the wife of a Duke student. Her husband, Alfarisi Muslim, was an MIDP Fellow in the one-year accelerated program, 2019-20.
“My husband and I divided our roles to do the housekeeping and take care of the children. We also allocated a different time for us to do our papers and study for exams,” added Yunaniar. “We attempted to enroll in different classes. However, if my husband and I had to attend the same class, we would sometimes bring our son to the class thanks to the kindness of MIDP's professors and staff.”
Earlier this year, Yunaniar endured yet another challenge.
“In January 2021, we returned to Indonesia because my father-in-law passed away. The pandemic was a blessing in disguise for our family. I took remote courses, despite the huge time difference between the US and Indonesia. I participated in Zoom classes from midnight until early morning, since Indonesia is 12 hours ahead of the US.”
“I enjoyed my learning in Duke's MIDP Program,” she said. “Time flies, and two years studying is never enough. MIDP offers courses that are very relevant to the developing country's issues. It brings diverse perspectives from my worldwide classmates. Also, I learned a lot from the expert professors.”
Inspired by the poor conditions of farmers in her home country, Yunaniar’s Masters Project focused on the trade competitiveness of agricultural products, specifically coffee in Indonesia.
Yunaniar could not attend Duke’s in-person graduation ceremonies due to travel restrictions, but she plans to participate in the MIDP virtual graduation.
“Despite all of the challenges, finally, we made it. I am graduating,” she said.
After graduation, Yunaniar plans to continue working with the Central Bank of Indonesia where she is an assistant manager.
Batool Askari MIDP’21 was born in central Afghanistan, a year before the Taliban took over. Soon women and girls were banned from going to school, so Askari did her early education at home. She got her BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Asian University for Women in Bangladesh where she was introduced to the concept of development studies.
“I realized the absence of women in leadership and decision-making positions in the development of Afghanistan. So, I decided to study international development policy.”
Askari has been inspired by the women in the Sanford community such as professors (especially Professor Phyllis Pomerantz) and fellow colleagues. Even the Dean is a woman, she notes.
Askari plans to start the Afghan Women Vanguards, an association led by educated Afghan women who specialize in different sectors of development and policy making. She hopes women will have a voice in what the country will become. While some women are serving in leadership roles in the country, in the recent peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, there were no women at the table.
“That is unacceptable for me,” Askari says, noting that she watched the talks while taking classes in leadership, peace and conflict resolution and cross-cultural negotiation. “Afghanistan cannot achieve peace and stability without Afghan women.”
Romina Damini MIDP’21 was a lawyer in Albania before she decided to pursue an advanced degree. When she was looking for programs, Duke stood out to her for its academics, and it stood out to her dad for a different reason. Her dad was an Olympic swimmer, and he was drawn to Duke’s prowess in sport, and he encouraged her to apply.
“My dad was obsessed with Duke,” she says. Coming here “was a shared dream between me and my dad.”
The Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) program is primarily comprised of international students. “We get to see how complicated and sometimes messy the public policy is in our home countries,” she says.
Damini’s father was planning to travel to North Carolina to watch his daughter graduate, but he passed away unexpectedly a month ago. Damini will cross the stage in honor of her dad, who was very proud of her being at Duke Sanford.
Photo: This image of Romina Damini and her dad was the the last picture they took at the airport before the flight to the U.S. to begin her program in July 2019 ((Her dad, she notes, "was very happy.")
Yuexuan Chen PPS’21 (also known as Chen Chen) is a dedicated journalist and storyteller who is passionate about public health and infectious disease. Chen was the Health/Science Editor at the Duke Chronicle when Covid-19 began to rage in 2020.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Chen wrote an essay for the Chronicle, “Wuhan is home and its doctors are family,” about the region in China where the disease first erupted.
“Underneath the hazmat suits displayed apocalyptically all over the media are my aunties and uncles. Behind the suffering looming over Wuhan, China are generations of my family’s spirited stories,” she wrote. “My mom’s close friends, my aunties and uncles, are saving lives while risking their own.”
Chen says the word “stories” sums up her time at Duke. She joined the Chronicle as a freshman, and has written for other outlets, too. Chen has been named a Schwarzman Scholar, a program that funds one year of study in Beijing and plans on pursuing a Master of Public Health after graduation.
Image: Ashley Hawkes poses next to recognition for Julian Abele, an African American architect and the primary designer of Duke's West Campus.
Before coming to Sanford's MPP Program, Ashley Hawkes MPP'21, was an Air Force veteran from Newport News, Virginia, who wanted to help her community beyond her military experience. Hawkes said, "While on active duty, I engaged with the private sector and ended up leaving the military to join corporate America. I discovered a desire to serve my community and help corporations better engage with the community around them."
"The focus on quality writing and quantitative skills have been paramount to my Sanford experience," Haekes said. "The connections and thought leadership from Sanford’s professors and guest speakers have been an incredible experience."
Hawkes is a founding member of the Sanford Veteran's Association (SVA), which is focused on recruitment, networking, and support for veteran students. She also assisted Sanford with outreach efforts to increase minority consideration of the Duke MPP program. In addition, Hawkes worked with the Durham, NC Mayor’s office as a member of the COVID-19 Task Force. After graduation, Hawkes will work in the financial sector with a focus on corporate social responsibility.
Liam Miranda MPP’21 completed his undergraduate studies at Duke in 2016 and returned in 2019 for his Masters in Public Policy. During the time in between, Miranda worked various data management and research roles. This past year, Miranda has been active on Durham’s COVID-19 Recovery and Renewal Task Force.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work on so many meaningful projects throughout my time at Sanford, but being a part of the student research team supporting Durham’s COVID-19 Task Force has been a particular highlight,” says Miranda.
Miranda worked directly with city leaders on projects ranging from exploring unique COVID-related challenges within Durham’s LGBTQ community, to building data dashboards about resident priorities from participatory budgeting data.
“It’s been a privilege to work alongside my peers to build research capacity for city and community leaders committed not only to overcoming but excelling and growing through COVID-related challenges in Durham.”
When COVID-19 sent students home for the rest of the semester, Hannah Miao PPS'21 didn't stop working. She researched and wrote a story about Cleveland’s AsiaTown and the struggles Asian American restauranteurs and merchants faced in the early days the pandemic. Her story was published in Cleveland Scene.
“Hannah is a great interviewer with an eye for good stories,” said Mark Stencel, co-director of the Duke Reporters' Lab who edited her story. (Stencel was previously managing editor for digital news at National Public Radio.) Stencel noted that to get her story, Miao conducted interviews, sometimes in Mandarin, in a community that was in shock from blows to their businesses from COVID-19 and anti-Asian discrimination.
"It was a scary time, still in the first months of the pandemic. Her story did what great journalism does best: telling the stories of people who aren't being heard,” Stencel said. Read Hannah's story>>
Swathi Ramprasad’s PPS’21 interest in the intersection of tech and social impact helped spur the creation of the Cyber Policy and Gender Violence Initiative at Sanford. With her double major in public policy and computer science, she worked with the Initiative to address the needs of women and domestic shelters in online spaces, particularly in the Covid world.
Originally from San Jose, California, Ramprasad came to Duke and dove into work that makes an impact on the community. She spent Tuesday nights working with refugee women through the Kenan Institute’s Supporting Women's Action (SuWA) program. As the president of the Duke Partnership for Service, she volunteered in Durham and worked to institutionalize policies that support service on campus.
At Sanford, her research with Dean Kelley tracked the United States’ commitment to human rights and democracy promotion. She was also a 2020 SOL Fellow with the Hart Leadership Program.
When asked what stands out from her college experience, she said she most appreciates her relationships with faculty at Sanford.
“I came into this program with a genuine interest in government and desire to go into public service. When you seek those experiences out at Duke, they stick with you. People really invest in your well-being and your future.”
Ajenai Clemmons PhD '21 was named a recipient of the 2021 Samuel DuBois Cook Society Awards, which recognize individuals who routinely enrich the lives of people in the Duke community and contribute to the betterment of all people, above and beyond their given roles. Clemmons’ research focuses on the relationship between police and communities. Her ongoing research stems from in-depth interviews she conducted with members of two heavily policed populations—young Black men in East Durham and young Muslim men of Bangladeshi descent in East London. Clemmons examines what these civilians want from police in order to be and feel safe, how they judge police performance, and how they respond if they feel police have not met their expectations.
Her research also made Clemmons acutely aware of the negative health effects that might afflict researchers exposed to troubling data and traumatic experiences. That led her to collaborate with The Graduate School, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Personal Assistance Service, and the Sanford School of Public Policy to organize a campus-wide workshop for students, faculty, and staff on recognizing and mitigating research-related trauma. Clemmons also serves on the Sanford School's Board of Visitors and represents public policy PhD students on the Duke Graduate School Advisory Board.
"Sanford is definitely special ... I felt that I found my people - intellectually and spiritually," she says. "It's been a great home."
Clemmons will be an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Denver, housed at the Scrivner Institute of Public Policy in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
For Brian Lim MPP ’21, completing his master’s degree has launched his new career in technology policy. From an internship that led to a fellowship and now a full-time position, Lim has been applying his tech policy skills at work while studying challenges like Section 230, the digital divide or data privacy. While at Sanford, Lim conducted research with Professor Matt Perault (a former director of public policy at Facebook) and fellow students to summarize legislation surrounding proposed changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The research was published in Slate just before graduation. Read Brian's story >>
Sarah Cross PhD'21 spent nearly a decade as a social worker specializing in serious illness care, including home hospice and inpatient palliative care, before deciding to get her PhD at Sanford. The first death she witnessed was her own grandmother’s, and that took away some of her fear around death and dying. She remembers appreciating the care her grandmother received at the end of her life and thinking, “Everybody should have access to high-quality care.”
But as a social worker, she saw the reality of the system and our society. Not everyone has the same type of end-of-life experience that her grandmother had. There are stark inequities. The illnesses people get, and the financial and social resources at their disposal are often outside of people’s control.
“I remember a conversation with supervisor when I was working in hospice. I vented to her, and she said, ‘That’s just the way the system is,’ Cross recalls. “I said, ‘If that’s the way it is, we need to change the system!’” Though she had never considered policy as a career path, and her last economics class was in high school, she found herself enrolling in graduate school again.
“Duke, it’s a great place -- both the physical and the human resources,” she said. While at Sanford, she worked closely with professors Don Taylor and Nathan Boucher and has focused her research on topics that will impact people traditionally underserved by palliative care, such as racial and ethnic minorities and low-income individuals.
Her research is already making a difference. Her paper that showed for the first time in half a century more people are dying at home than in the hospital was published in the New England Journal of Medicine and featured in both the New York Times and NPR. Having an early public success was an unexpected surprise and boosted her confidence.
“Everybody who gets involved in research hopes they are able to make a meaningful contribution,” she says. “I hope to contribute in my own way, combining my social work background and research training to make palliative and end-of-life care more equitable.”
Jabril Wilson PPS’21 majored Public Policy and African and African American Studies with a minor in Cultural Anthropology. While at Duke, he was a Rubenstein scholar and member of the first-generation, low-income (1G/LI) community and also a peer mentor for students with similar backgrounds.
For his AAAS honors thesis, Wilson traveled to Togo to collect data to analyze the success of a microfinance institution in the rural areas of northern Togo. His thesis begins to bridge the gap between risk assessment/creditworthiness and access to credit in rural areas by creating a framework that incorporates kinship and social ties into the credit assessment process.
He also spent six weeks in Ghana with a study abroad program, which confirmed his interest in findings ways to build sustainable lending institutions that provide access to capital for small business ventures in the rural areas of Western Africa through culturally relevant mechanisms.
Following graduation, Wilson will attend Georgetown University Law Center in the fall as a Georgetown Global Law Scholar where he’ll continue his work in building financial infrastructures in rural West Africa
Patrick Rochelle MPP’21 will be joining the Presidential Management Fellows Program after graduation, a two-year training and leadership development program. Rochelle will work at the Department of Labor in San Francisco, CA.
At Sanford, Rochelle worked with a Bass Connections project, American Predatory Lending and the Global Financial Crisis, during his second year exploring the causes of the 2008 financial crisis. He helped lead a team of undergraduate and graduate student researchers conducting oral history interviews with state and federal policymakers, regulators, legal aid attorneys, and consumer advocates from around the country to understand the market forces and policy failures that led to the crisis.
Photo: Rochelle with his girlfriend Lia Dawley MBA’20.
Sam McDermott PPS'21 has had quite the adventure at Duke — literally.
The public policy and environmental policy double major took many trips during his undergraduate career because he was a climbing wall instructor, trip leader, and trip manager for Outdoor Adventures. He’s led groups throughout North Carolina, though his favorite trip may be a staff-only adventure on the Neuse River during his sophomore year.
But it hasn't been all fun and kayaking. Recently, he was participated in the Transition Term NC project as a part of professor Tony Brown’s enterprising leadership course. The program pairs students for six weeks with North Carolina state leaders during their transition to office. Read Sam's story >
Jake Satisky PPS’21 knew from the beginning of his first year at Duke that he wanted to be involved in student journalism and hit the ground running by joining the Chronicle. He would go on to become the Editor-in-Chief and later the digital strategy director and recruitment chair.
His extracurriculars were not limited to student publishing. Satisky was involved in student government as a Senator of Academic Affairs and worked on a Bass Connections project researching predatory lending practices. Through DukeEngage, Satisky volunteered at Treehouse—a nonprofit dedicated to equity and racial justice in the foster care and education systems—in Seattle the summer after his sophomore year.
As one might expect from someone with so many interests, he chose to major in public policy because of the interdisciplinary nature of the program. After graduation, he looks forward to moving to Washington DC and meeting new people.
When asked if he had any advice for the incoming first-years he said, “Take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities at Duke. Do what you love, but also don’t be afraid to mix things up.”