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Juan Merlo MPP'24 has seen Duke University during his time in the Master of Public Policy (MPP) program in a way few have – both from his seat in the classroom, and from behind the instructor’s lectern. He taught eight undergraduates about public policy, in Spanish, as part of Duke CLAC (Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum) program which offers accredited tutorials across campus. Past CLAC course offerings have been in Arabic, French, German, Italian, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, and Swahili in addition to Spanish.

“I never thought I would have the opportunity to create a syllabus and share some of my knowledge about Public Policy in Latin America,” Juan wrote on LinkedIn. “We are exploring topics like climate, migration, tech policy, economic policy, politics and institutions, the environment, and drug policy. It's also been an incredible experience to learn more about my region and listen to the students' perspectives.”


Juan Merlo with his students on the last day of class.

Juan is from Colombia. He earned his undergraduate degree in environmental engineering there and served in roles related to climate and the environment, including a position as Adviser and Private Secretary for Bogota’s Secretary of the Environment, where he influenced policymaking in the Latin American city that’s home to 8 million people.

Juan sitting on Sanford steps
Juan Merlo on the steps of the Sanford building

A first-generation, low-income student, he set his sights on winning a prestigious Fulbright award to help fund an advanced degree. On the day of the Fulbright announcement, he was on public transportation headed to work when his phone started buzzing. He waited until he got to work to check his messages and got the news that he’d won. It’s a moment he’ll never forget. “I was celebrating with my manager and then she said, ‘OK, now go call your mom!’”

He chose to attend Duke because a couple of mentors had attended Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. It was not easy at first, moving to a new country to take graduate-level classes in English.

“I didn’t know what coming to grad school really meant. It was like, navigating everything by myself,” he remembers, adding that sometimes he felt insecure early on. “I did not have anyone to tell me, ‘This is how you do it, or this is how it works in the United States, or this is how you advance your career.’”

But he soon connected with other students and began to feel more comfortable. He’s especially proud of the wide range of classes he’s taken at Sanford and in other Duke schools like the Fuqua School of Business, the Nicholas School of the Environment, and the Pratt School of Engineering.

Juan wants to build a career in climate tech and strategy, leveraging his concentration in Technology Policy and his experience at Duke. He found ways to collaborate with different companies in the U.S. while completing his degree.

“One positive thing about Sanford and Duke is that you can build your curriculum flexibly, finding your own opportunities,” he said. While at Duke, he collaborated with Modern Energy and Third Derivative and did his internship at Schneider Electric in Boston.

In addition to taking classes, exploring Durham, teaching undergraduates, completing an internship, and working part-time, Juan joined the Latin Dance Team, Sabrosura. The team is primarily made up of undergraduates. Juan, an accomplished salsa dancer, says he enjoyed getting an undergraduate perspective on his new home and seeing how different the Duke experience could be for graduate students. Also, he made some of his best friends at Sabrosura.

Recently, Juan was talking to a Duke international student career advisor, and he started thinking about his journey – how out of place he felt when he landed in the U.S. and how far he’s come, how much he’s grown.

“This journey has been one of self-discovery, of finding out who I am. I can see myself growing, both personally and professionally. Even if you're doing things badly, you're learning a lot. I am so grateful to Sanford and Duke.”

After graduation, Juan has accepted an internship at Paramount Global, working on Climate Tech and ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance). He will be based in New York City. 

Juan Merlo on Stage


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