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Jessica On has exemplified a lived commitment to knowledge in service of society. She cares deeply about educational equity and has used her Duke experience to gain the frameworks, skills, and knowledge to pursue the high calling of being a teacher.

Andrew Nurkin

As Jessica On PPS'24 prepares for graduation on May 10th, Sanford has taught her valuable lessons as she continues to pursue her call to teach others.

As a student teacher at EK Powe Elementary School in Durham, Jessica embodies a dedication to education and community service. Despite her rigorous teaching schedule, she generously volunteers as a High School Advocate with Student U and research with the Durham University Assisted Community Schools research collective through Bass Connections. Not surprisingly, Duke recently announced Jessica as their 2024 nominee for North Carolina student teacher of the year.

Jessica, long white dress cap and gown over shoulder. In front of beautiful Sanford building
Jessica On, 2024 Forever Duke Student Leadership Award and 2024 Winfred Quinton Holton Prize for Educational Research winner in front of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke.

Jessica has embodied the "Forever Duke" spirit throughout her time at Duke, intertwining academic prowess with a compassionate heart dedicated to societal betterment. As a Public Policy major, her journey has been one of discovery and impact. Jessica will leave a wide-ranging impact on the university community, from her instrumental role within the Sanford Donor and Alumni Relations (DAR) team to her stellar academic and leadership achievements.

Jessica's commitment is not just a word; it's a lifestyle. Her exceptional contributions have earned her the prestigious 2024 Forever Duke Student Leadership Award and the esteemed Duke Winfred Quinton Holton Prize for Educational Research. These accolades are a testament to her scholarly prowess and unwavering dedication to advancing knowledge in her field.

Under the guidance of mentors like Andrew Nurkin (Professor and Director of the Hart Leadership Program) and Professor Alexandra Zagbayou, Jessica's understanding of leadership in the public sphere has flourished.

Her involvement in the Hart Leadership Program has provided her with invaluable insights into the ethics of community engagement and the wisdom of Duke alumni, shaping her into a compassionate leader ready to tackle societal challenges.

“Through her participation in Service Opportunities in Leadership (SOL) and her work with the Hart Leadership Program over two years, Jessica On has exemplified a lived commitment to knowledge in service of society. She cares deeply about educational equity and has used her Duke experience to gain the frameworks, skills, and knowledge to pursue the high calling of being a teacher. All of us at the Hart Leadership Program congratulate Jessica on her Duke graduation and hope she knows that she has made the Duke community even better during her four years here,” said Nurkin.

Zagbayou shared in celebrating Jessica’s achievements. “As an SOL fellow, Jessica demonstrated a deep curiosity about the world around her, an eagerness to discover her role, and a commitment to fostering safe and inclusive communities. She was also willing to take on intellectual challenges in service of her learning. She was an exemplary fellow and took her passion for education justice to Student U where she has remained a dedicated member of the community. Jessica is well deserving of this award, and I am excited for what the future has in store for her.”


Maggie Stroud, Associate Director of Alumni Relations at Sanford, echoes this sentiment, stating, "Within my ten months at Duke, I have had the good fortune of working closely with Jessica on student employee projects for Sanford, and her creativity, positivity, and thoughtfulness have played a vital role in our alumni program."

Talented Writer

In addition to an academic career filled with accolades, Jessica is a talented writer, penning the alumni greeting for the November 2023 Alumni Memo. This newsletter reaches over 8,000 Sanford alumni.

Jessica and three friends with Duke Chapel in background
Jessica On is 'dedicated to shaping education policy.'

In that address, Jessica shared her thoughts on her transformative journey through Sanford and expressed her gratitude for Sanford's mentors.

“Reflecting on when I applied to Duke four years ago, I wrote in my essays about how I dreamed of learning from Professor Deondra Rose. When I got to campus, those dreams became an enriching reality.  I learned and worked alongside Professor Rose in her courses and as an undergraduate fellow for Polis, Sanford’s Center for Politics. Our team of fellows worked tirelessly through the 2020 election season to host the Polis Innovation Accelerator, a virtual panel series where we heard from alumni like Susan Gordon T‘80 on leadership and politics. This fellowship underscored the pivotal role that alumni contributions play in fostering student engagement and real-world application.

My involvement in the Hart Leadership Program (HLP) as a Service Opportunity in Leadership (SOL) fellow was particularly enlightening in my understanding of leadership in the public sphere. Guided by Professor Alexandra Zagbayou and HLP Director Andrew Nurkin T‘03, we delved into the ethics of community engagement, drew from the wisdom of Duke alumni actively involved in community initiatives, and conducted a community-based project that summer that cultivated into a capstone research portfolio.  

After graduation, I am dedicated to shaping education policy, both in and out of the classroom. Sanford courses from ‘Children, Schools, and Societies’ with Dr. Molly Goldwasser PPS ‘07 to ‘Economics of the Public Sector’ with Dr. Vicki Bogan have equipped me with a profound comprehension of, and motivation to challenge, the systemic social inequities that perpetuate disparities in educational attainment.  

Working within the Development and Alumni Relations office at Sanford, I am consistently inspired by the remarkable journeys and contributions of our distinguished alumni. Witnessing the philanthropic contributions that power fellowships like Polis and SOL, scholarships, and invaluable opportunities for students like me reaffirms the transformative potential of investing in the future of public policy.”

As Jessica looks ahead to the next chapter of her journey, she does so with purpose, optimism, and a commitment to making a positive difference in the world. With her boundless enthusiasm, dedication to service, and exceptional leadership qualities, Jessica On is poised to change the world, embodying the very spirit of Duke's mission to knowledge in the service of society.

Jessica On Forever Duke Awardee


Jessica On was awarded the 2024 Forever Duke Student Leadership Award.


Graduation Stories & Details

We will be sharing graduation stories throughout the week leading up to graduation on Sanford's website, and on our social channels. Need the graduation details? Check out the official Graduation Page to find parking info, live streams and more. 

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