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Sanford students, both undergraduate and graduate, are always amazing. They come from all over the world, and from nearby neighborhoods in Durham. They start organizations, volunteer in the community, earn awards and develop friendships that have the potential to last a lifetime. This class had the extra challenge of an extraordinary spring. Here are some of the stories of the Class of 2020.


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Terry Sanford Leadership Award Winner Kaylee Brilhard

Kaylee Brilhart PPS’20 grew up in a tiny island town in Florida. She was the first in her family to attend college. Her first years at Duke, she hid her background as a first generation student from a low-income family to try and fit in. As she learned about discrimination and inequality, she became active in Duke LIFE, student group for first generation and/or low-income family students, 1G/LI for short. Becoming a public policy major in her junior year, she found ways to weave together her identity and her work on behalf of 1G/LI students with her growing understanding of the context around wealth and class. Brilhart is the 2020 Terry Sanford Leadership Award Winner. Read Kaylee's story >>>


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Maram Elnagheeb PPS’20 will be travelling to Jordan after graduation as an English teaching assistant and Fulbright scholar. She earned an interdepartmental major in public policy studies and sociology. Her experiences living in both Sudan and Charlotte, North Carolina, kindled her interest in activism through supporting the developing world and its peoples against injustice. At Duke, she was involved with Bass Connections, where she and her team worked on identifying health needs among refugees in North Carolina. Elnagheeb also wrote for The Duke Chronicle, where her columns addressed issues such as #BlackLivesMatter, domestic violence, and performative “wokeness.” She is also part of the Mellon Mays Class of 2020, a program encouraging diversity in students pursuing PhDs.

Outside Duke, she interned at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, where she campaigned for fair hiring policies, and the Capital Group, where she assisted with business deals. Moving forward, she hopes to work on improving access to quality education.



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Maryam Asenuga PPS’20 always wanted to become a lawyer and advocate for minority communities. She founds ways to begin that advocacy on campus and in Durham through Duke Student Government. As DSG cabinet director of multi-cultural and racial outreach, she petitioned for a space for Native American and Indigenous students, which opened in January. She also was one of the creators of Duke’s Pride Invitational, the nation’s first invitational for LGBTQIA+ prospective students, a two-day event first officially held in 2019. She also used her minor in Arabic by tutoring refugee children in Durham. Read Maryam's story >>>



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Romina Tomé is the first person to defend a dissertation remotely at the Sanford School. At first she was disappointed that she would not be in the same room with her Doctoral Committee members. But the remote defense ended up making big news in her hometown, a small agricultural community in Argentina. Read Romina's story >>>

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Best Thesis Paper – Tyler Jonathan Kopp

Tyler Kopp PPS'20 had always been interested in human rights. In the fall of his sophomore year, Tyler Kopp traveled to Mexico City with the DukeImmerse program, where he interviewed returnees who had been deported from the U.S. He knew then that he wanted to write something bigger about deportation and family separation. His honors thesis project was a chance to train a human rights lens on U.S. policies that separate Mexican-U.S. families and to show the human cost of the practice. The resulting paper, “It’s a Trauma That Stays with You: How U.S. Family Separation Policies Affect Mexican-U.S. Migrant Families,” earned Kopp the Best Honors Thesis Award for 2020. Read Tyler's story>>>

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Fleishman Distinguished Scholar Award – Hayden Lynn Manseau

Hayden Manseau PPS’20 is the winner of the Joel Fleishman Distinguished Scholar Award. The award is given to a graduating senior for the highest academic achievement in public policy.

Manseau grew up in Los Gatos, Cal., a Silicon Valley suburb. She majored in public policy studies, minored in psychology and earned a certificate in innovation and entrepreneurship.

As an intern at the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental nonprofit, she researched and executed a digital advocacy campaign. “I was excited to be able to experience the intersection of digital marketing and policy at a nonprofit organization while at LCV. I had diverse and interesting tasks that taught me what it is like to work at a medium sized nonprofit and helped me hone important marketing, writing and communication skills,” she said.

Last summer, she was an e-commerce innovation intern at PepsiCo, where she worked on a plan to market the first brand developed by the company’s innovation incubator. After graduation, she is returning the Bay Area as an associate consultant at Bain & Co.


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Meril Pothen MPP’20 left a career in consulting to learn how to leverage policy to transform the American health care system. Working with pharma companies and large hospital systems, she saw how misaligned incentives resulted in ineffective care, exorbitant bills, and little trust in the system for patients.

At Sanford, she’s become a “high-value care” specialist, examining how to reform health care so it rewards providers for interventions that maximize positive patient outcomes. With other public policy students, she spent a semester helping Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina improve patient engagement in and adherence to primary care.

Through the Bass Connections “Help Desk: A Student Initiative to Help Address the Social Determinants of Health” project team, she collaborated with Lincoln Community Health Center and Durham social services organizations to screen patients for non-medical needs, such as housing and food,), refer them to local resources, and follow up  to ensure their needs were met. Last fall, she volunteered as an Affordable Care Act Navigator through a partnership between Duke and NC Legal Aid, helping people enroll in health insurance and understanding obstacles in the current system that impact access.

“What I will miss most is being surrounded by smart, passionate people who are dedicated to using policy to improve the human experience,” she said. She looks forward to paying it forward as an active alumna.



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Niisoja Torto PPS ’20 performed with Duke’s student-run swing dance team and Latin dance troup in addition to his coursework in public policy.

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In his honor thesis, Niisoja Torto PPS ’20 investigated the role of food aid and assistance in addressing Ghana’s double burden of malnutrition—the paradoxical and simultaneous presence of undernutrition and obesity.

“I’m from Ghana originally, so I was really interested in doing something that tapped into my heritage,” Torto said. “It was a beautiful culmination of my work as an undergraduate at Sanford.”

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Torto’s study of food and nutrition policy began in his first year, when he joined the Global Health FOCUS program. Since then, Torto has helped author a report for international coordination for nutrition during his internship at the World Health Organization in Geneva. He worked as a research assistant for Sanford’s World Food Policy Center.

After graduation, Torto will work on anti-hunger policy as an Emerson National Hunger Fellow, at a U.S. field site and in Washington, D.C. Torto hopes to combine his policy and clinical interests and attend medical school.

“This foundation is so I can better understand what it means to be a policy-oriented or pro-nutrition physician,” Torto explained about his decision to study public policy.

Torto has also performed with Duke’s student-run swing dance team and Latin dance troupe. Torto said, “I loved dancing with such diverse communities. It was a lot of fun learning these dance styles—both the partner dancing and social dancing.”



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Yidan Chu iMEP’20 is the class speaker and winner of the Student Leadership Award for the International Master in Environmental Policy, which is primarily based at Duke Kunshan University in China. She was nominated by her classmates, who cited her hard work and support.

Chu had studied accounting as an undergraduate and worked in the business sector before deciding to apply to the program. She is interested in the potential of electric vehicles and did her master’s project on electric vehicle charging payment options.

The iMEP program is the first in the world to draw together the important core requirements in environmental management and public policy. The iMEP degree is a collaboration between Sanford and Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

“In the iMEP program, I learned how to cooperate with different people in a team. I also learned how to deal with pressure while multitasking. These abilities and skills are so important and I will bring them with me into the future,” Chu said.



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For Daniel Gardner PPS'20, becoming a Duke student – and now alumnus – has been a lifelong dream. Coming from a Duke family, he has photos on campus at various points throughout his childhood, culminating in his graduation pictures this week. Not only has Gardner lived his dream and earned his degree, he has also received a 2020 Forever Duke Student Leadership Award, recognizing students who embody the “Forever Duke” spirit in their service to the university. Read Daniel's story >>>



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Growing up in Turkey, North Carolina, Daisy Almonte PPS'20 was surrounded by a tight-knit rural community that celebrated her every success. Her acceptance to Duke as a Benjamin N. Duke Scholar. Being named a Baldwin Scholar and elected Duke Student Government vice president for equity and outreach. Matriculating at Harvard this coming fall as a Truman Scholar, the prestigious honor awarded to young people who have demonstrated a commitment to public service. Read Daisy's story >>>



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Francisco Jeria MIDP '20

Francisco Jeria MIDP '20 worked at the Ministry of Education in Chile for five years before coming to Sanford with his wife and son. The Sanford faculty "is amazing," he says, adding that they are very willing to share their experiences and knowledge. Jeria also valued being a part of a relatively small community. Jeria served as a member of Sanford's Board of Visitors. He plans to return to Chile to work in public finance management.


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As a freshman, Linda Zhang PPS’20 conducted a research project that helps Duke faculty members understand the mindset of Chinese undergraduates at Duke Kunshan University. She also runs an ambassador program that fosters connections between students at Duke Kunshan and Duke. Read Linda's story >>>



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Second-year MIDP fellow Lusine Stepanyan was accepted as one of a handful of Duke Students to the Clinton Global Initiative University, an international initiative for students around the world that is focused on social entrepreneurship and innovation. Stepanyan is originally from Armenia where she started a School of Languages aimed at teaching (mostly women) who were entering the workforce for the first time.

"I think I have always been entrepreneurial," Stepanyan says. "Even when I worked within an organization, I would come up with projects and ideas that would provide me some room for exercising my creative powers. So when I started my own business I realized that that’s being an entrepreneur who continuously seeks to improve herself and her ventures is my calling."

But when she was running the school Stepanyan realized that she needed more expertise.

"I had a greater vision of the impact I want to make or as Steve Jobs once said 'leave a dent in the universe.'" Stepanyan decided to come to Duke for an advanced degree in international development policy.

Read a Q&A with Lusine Stepanyan >>>



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For Julian Xie MD'21/MPP'20, the dual degree program leading to a MPP and MD in five years was the perfect way to combine his interest in food policy, food systems and health. He took advantage of the opportunities the program provided. Through Sanford’s World Food Policy Center, he was involved in community efforts such as the Durham Farm and Food Network. Roots Causes, a group he co-founded, provides fresh produce to patients at the Duke Outpatient Clinic every two weeks. He even went to the UN for a session.

“I was in the room when they adopted the Global Action Plan for Healthy Lives and Well Being. That was a particularly happy moment for me because I had participated in the Duke Global Policy Program in Geneva and worked on the plan during my internship with the United Nations World Food Program,” he said. Read Julian's story >>>




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"Leah Abrams PPS’20 has channeled her advocacy for racial justice and equity through highlighting the need for criminal justice reform. She worked with the local non-profit, the Community Empowerment Fund, which helps people move out of homelessness and came to see how many were blocked from employment and housing because of outdated charges. This inspired her to use her platform as an opinion writer for The Duke Chronicle and later as a reporter for the local paper INDY Week to tell their stories. 

“I think that communicating effectively around social justice and equality in the United States is the first step in making policy change. Until we have conversations about these things we’re never going to get anywhere,” Abrams said. Read Leah's story >>>

The summer after sophomore year I worked at Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Alabama and it was amazing. I was working with Teaching Tolerance, the branch of SPLC that works directly with educators. They track hate incidents in K-12 schools, they provide a magazine for teachers who are social justice oriented so they can bring these materials into the classroom. To see them in action gave me a better understanding of how you go about nonprofit change from different angles and that was really useful."

 See Leah's Humans of Duke Sanford feature >>>



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Rizki Harahap MIDP’20 took the International Taxation Policy track for his degree. He will return to Indonesia to work for the Directorate General of Taxes in the Ministry of Finance. His wife, Vina, and his four-year-old son, Rami, moved to Durham with him. 

“When I reflect on my two years at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy, I conclude that is has been very transformative and highly rewarding. As an ITP fellow, I studied an interdisciplinary field of public policy, economics, law and business.  I was able to take course not only at the Sanford School, but at Fuqua and the Law school. I‘ve been learning from world-renowned professors and practitioners and interacting with supportive colleagues from different countries that made me able to communicate and collaborate comfortably in multi-cultural teams. It was a wonderful time in my life, and the best educational experience I’ve had,” Harahap said.

Moreover, the Sanford school is a very caring and supportive environment for both students and families of students.  Sanford always involves students’ families in various events, such as Thanksgiving dinner, Halloween parties and the International potluck. Our family feels that Sanford is more a family and a community than just a school. Our family always feels very welcome and at home in Durham.”