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David Marshall returned to Sanford, 20 years after dropping out to serve in the military, to finish his degree.

David Marshall was sitting in an economics class for his MPP degree at Sanford on a warm September morning when someone came in and slid a note to the professor who turned on the TV. It was 2001, and Marshall and his classmates sat in shock, watching 9-11 play out on huge TV screens. 

“I remember being very upset, angry. I left school that day,” he says.

At the time he was a reservist with the North Carolina Air National Guard and soon he was called up to active duty.  He finished his semester and left Duke, eventually serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and Djibouti.

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David Marshall in Afghanistan.

The Decision to Return

When he dropped out of Sanford, Marshall had been pursuing a dual degree, an MPP/JD. He was able to finish his law degree in between deployments, but the MPP always seemed like a little too much. He had a job, a daughter. Was it worth it?

But then he remembers how thrilled he was to be in the MPP program in the first place.

His dad was a blue-collar worker, and when Marshall was accepted into to the MPP program, he didn’t really picture himself as a “Duke” type of person. He drove to campus for admitted students’ day, and that didn’t help.

“I was in my beat-up pickup truck that I had bought from my father-in-law for $800 and I’m not sure if it was worth that,” he jokes. But he really liked the people, and the beautiful campus, and he scored a major scholarship thanks to the former Dean of Graduate studies Frederick “Fritz” Mayer, and was soon enmeshed in his studies. Then 9/11 happened, he left, and two decades went by.

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David with his daughter and wife
David Marshall with his daughter and wife

Over the years Marshall wondered if he had it in himself to return. Then, when his daughter went off to college, he listened to her talk about her studies.

“It just sparked my interest. I’ve always been intellectually curious. I am in love with learning. I thought, ‘Gosh, it’s not going to hurt me to reach out and talk to somebody about it.’”

He met with Professors David Schanzer and Tim Nichols, both of whom specialize in the national security arena. He was inspired by the work they were doing at Sanford in that space. They connected him with Ken Rogerson, Director of Graduate Studies at Sanford. That connection was pivotal.

“Ken is amazing. He’s guided me, cheer-leaded for me, pushed me at times, pulled me at times, and all through this process, we developed a friendship that we both agreed would not end after graduation,” he says, adding that while he was finishing his degree, he had doubts. Was he getting the degree for the right reasons? Was this an ego trip?

Rogerson would always talk to him with humor and passion and the utmost confidence.

“‘Look,” Rogerson would say, “This would be a waste for you to not finish this, you’re intellectually curious by nature, and scholarship is in you.”

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Ken Rogerson is director of graduate studies in the Sanford School's MPP program.

“He was almost clairvoyant”

Marshall says what amazes him, given the number of students Rogerson is responsible for, was that Rogerson seemed to have an almost sixth sense for when he needed some support.  

For example, Marshall has a government job that includes the ability to see non-public military information.

“When Russia invaded Ukraine, that week was hard,” he says. “I was at work reading things not available to the general public, harrowing things. He [Rogerson] could tell things were affecting me.” Support like that has made all the difference.

After graduation David Marshall hopes to move into a role where his public policy training and experiences will be of use.

So, was coming back to Duke for his MPP twenty years after he left worth it? Definitely.

“If you want to be in business and make money, get an MBA,” he says. But those same skills and talents can be used for the greater good. “There’s nothing wrong with capitalism but being a part of something bigger than myself is important to me. It’s what my MPP from Duke University represents.”

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About Our Graduates

Students graduate Friday May 6 from the Sanford School with undergraduate, Master of Public Policy, Master of International Development Policy,  international Master of Environmental Policy and PhD degrees.  

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