By Hamza Mohamoud
Like many students, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I came to Duke. Like many other BIPOC students, my parents encouraged me to pursue the pre-medical track. I started my Duke career on August 28th, 2017 with an 8:30 am Chemistry 101 lecture… that class quickly made me realize I disliked morning lectures and chemistry. To avoid another bout with chemistry, I explored my love for technology through a Computer Science 101 course. I soon learned that coding was not for me, but debugging coding errors did teach me patience.
As a sophomore, I decided to try out Global Health 101. I loved the course; it explained so much about world health outcomes that I had never known. Chemistry did not teach me why policy interventions should consider the social determinants of health. Computer science did not introduce me to the importance of equity, human-centered design, and research in all fields and disciplines. Because the class’ content strongly intersected with policy, I decided to pursue a double major in public policy and global health.
Fast forward to August 2020 and we are unfortunately in the middle of a pandemic. I found myself days away from returning to a much different campus than the one I had left in March. It would have been my senior year at Duke, my last chance to experience college. I had a decision to make: do I want to risk contracting COVID and struggle through my last year with Zoom classes, or should I take a gap year and re-evaluate my academic plans?
Shortly before my return to campus, I stumbled across the answer to my questions: the 4+1 Masters of Public Policy (MPP) program. I learned that I could stay at Duke to earn a bachelors and masters degree in five years. However, I had to apply as a junior. I needed to take a gap year to start the MPP as a senior, apply to the program in spring 2021, and complete my undergraduate course requirements in summer 2021. After a single phone call with Kenneth Rogerson, the director of graduate studies at Sanford, confirmed it was feasible, I decided to take my leave and prepare for the application.
The decision to take a gap year was not an easy one. I remained at home for 14 months with little in-person social interaction. My mental health suffered as a result of the intense quarantine (I had an immunocompromised grandmother at home). Pursuing the program also meant I would lack crucial work experience that many jobs expect.
The biggest hurdle? Figuring out how I could complete the last three classes of my undergraduate career. Because of COVID-19, few classes were offered in summer 2021. After many emails, canceled classes, and much finesse, I managed to complete my undergraduate requirements by the end of fall 2021.
A key point made my decision easier: I would be both a senior and a first-year master’s student. In other words, my undergraduate financial aid package would cover my first year of graduate school.
As a 4+1 student, I get to stay at Duke where I have built connections with friends I love, good faculty relationships, and strong work habits. Best of all, I get to meet an entire cohort of experienced, unique, and kind graduate students. I personally love to learn about others: their life stories, job experiences, and passions, and the 4+1 program enables that!
My graduate courses have been both engaging and informational. From Social Determinants of Health with Professor Jay Pearson to Globalization and Governance with Professor Sarah Bermeo, my professors and peers have exposed me to new ways of thinking. I came into the program set on a health policy concentration. However, my courses helped me understand the importance of studying all policy disciplines to make comprehensive, inclusive policies. I plan to focus on the intersection between health and environmental policy, supplementing this focus with classes in social and tech policy. Post-graduation, I hope to research how climate change affects health outcomes among BIPOC individuals and subsequently work toward improving those health outcomes.
I made the right decision. Although it was painful to miss senior year with my friends in the Class of 2021, I fostered old friendships and built new ones this year. I am experiencing my senior year as both an undergraduate and a first-year graduate student. It may not be what I imagined, but I am grateful to my 2020 self for taking a step back and prioritizing our future.
Prolonging my time at Duke was the best financial, personal, and educational decision I have made. I strongly recommend current juniors consider the 4+1 program and current sophomores and freshmen keep the program on their radar!
Hamza Mohamoud is a current senior and first-year Master of Public Policy student from the suburbs of Atlanta. In his free time, Hamza enjoys playing and watching sports, listening to rap and R&B, making Somali chai, and frequenting Waffle House.