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by Maddie Wray

Marcus Morrow MPP’14 and Ciara Coughlin MPP’16 benefited from the Sanford School network in more ways than one; not only did they find connections in their careers, but they found each other.

The couple now live together in Durham, but before their time at Duke, they were on different continents. While Marcus attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for a degree in political science, Ciara spent two years in Cameroon, teaching computer science with the Peace Corps.

“I studied international relations as an undergrad, but didn’t really have a great idea of what I wanted to do with that,” Ciara explained about her undergraduate studies at Boston University, “so [joining the Peace Corps] was kind of trying out the development space... and also just opportunity for adventure.”

However, after her time in Cameroon, Ciara felt as if she had not yet gathered all the tools to start her career and came to Duke to pursue her Masters in Public Policy at Sanford.  She took courses in international development policy, while also developing the tools she was missing.

“I really valued being forced to take statistics and economics, the sort of things that gave me hard skills...the kind of thing that very few people are passionate about.” Ciara explained with a laugh. “But [they were] sort of the vegetables I had to eat to become this professional I came to Sanford to become.”

For Marcus, after finishing his undergraduate studies, Sanford seemed like the best choice for a jumping-off point for his career. He explained that meeting with Sanford professors before applying made a big impact on his decision to come to Duke.

“We talked a long time about what my career goals were and what I wanted to do and I felt that Duke would be a place where I would have a network for the rest of my career.”

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Marcus Morrow MPP'14 and Ciara Coughlin MPP'16 wedding photo
Ciara Coughlin MPP'16 and Marcus Morrow MPP'14 at the American Tobacco Campus for their wedding.

For both Marcus and Ciara, their time at Sanford gave them just that.

“There’s been so many opportunities to stay connected with the Sanford community and I still benefit from that, and benefit from the ‘Duke Mafia’,” Ciara said. “I expected needing to find other opportunities myself, but the connections that Duke was able to make and the continued network has been was more unexpected than anything else.”

One of the most important connections made through Duke was meeting each other. Their paths finally crossed when they both ended up in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2015.  After graduation, Marcus taken a position with Deloitte, then moved to Booz Allen Hamilton as a federal government consultant just before Ciara came to D.C. for her internship.

“We had networks of people that we knew, and friends that crossed over... so we met through one of my classmates who was interning at the place where Marcus was working,” Ciara explained. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared passions for policy and their experiences at Sanford.

After their whirlwind summer romance, Ciara moved back down to Durham for her second year at Sanford, and Marcus soon followed that winter. They conquered the feat of long distance after Ciara spent time in D.C. again after graduation, but in 2018, the couple was reunited, moving permanently back to Durham, and thankfully, Ciara said, “we were finally living in the same place.”

Since that summer, Marcus and Ciara have been navigating the work world together; in early 2020, both began new jobs during the early months of the pandemic. In April, Ciara left her job of four years at USAID to begin work with RTI as a MERLA manager in RTI’s international development group, where she works on different development projects throughout the world, helping groups adapt and change their work as needed. Marcus found himself moving down a different path from his previous jobs and joined Blue Cross as a senior strategic advisor.

“Over the pandemic, I think it was a big push to be happy in whatever job you’re in,” said Marcus. His new position as a senior strategic advisor at Blue Cross has turned out to be just what Marcus was looking for. It is his first job in healthcare instead of policy, he explained. “[There have] definitely been some changes, but I’m very happy with where I am now, and I definitely have a good balance.”

When the pandemic sent Marcus’s work online, Ciara had already been working from home for some time. “Before COVID, I was working from home just by myself,” she explained, but having Marcus at home has brought them closer, both in their relationship and in proximity, as they zoom-ed in their respective home offices: “I’ve enjoyed having him be my coworker!”

Ciara and Marcus saw a lot of changes to their lives during the pandemic; in addition to moving jobs, the couple also got married this past summer and have started to set down their roots in Durham.

“I’m really passionate about the city, so I think the next couple years for me is being more involved in community efforts and building the city to the way we want,” Marcus explained. Drawing on his Sanford background, Marcus works as a mentor to current students, and in the Durham community, he has worked with Dress for Success as a mentor for women returning to the workforce and with the Food Bank CENC.

For Ciara, after being previously focused on international development, being unable to travel during the pandemic has shifted her gaze to a more local scale as well. “I’ve taken more steps to be integrated in the local community, volunteering locally,” she said. She has volunteered with CWS in Durham, working with local refugee communities as they settle into Durham, and with the American Red Cross’s Disaster Action Team.

“I think that’s new for me, and something that I definitely want to continue going forward... by trying to build myself into Durham.”

Marcus and Ciara’s story has been shaped by the connections they made through Sanford, from finding jobs they love, to finding the person they love, to now finding a community they love to give back to and build themselves into.

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