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Annika standing in front of Sanford sign
Annika is double majoring in Public Policy and International Comparative Studies

By Annika Aristimuno

At Duke and within the field of Public Policy, at least from my experience, there has been a lot of pressure to be a leader and hold leadership positions. Even the Sanford Resume template asks you to add your leadership experience. Once I got to Duke and began settling in, I felt stressed that I couldn’t find leadership positions when competing against other amazing people who offer rich experiences. However, I came across the Penny Pilgram George Women’s Leadership Initiative. I realized it was a space for female-identifying students to come together and build on the leadership skills they already had. I was excited about joining and hoping to apply what I learned in the program to the rest of my experience at Duke, whether through clubs or internships in Public Policy.

            I hope this piece motivates other female-identifying students to seek opportunities that encourage continuous learning and the development of crucial skills for becoming the effective leaders we aim to be.

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several women sitting around a circular table while eating.
Annika (front right) with the Restorative Justice Family group

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Sam Lopez, the Director of the Penny Pilgram George Women's Leadership Initiative, to delve into the program's history, mission, and impact on students at Duke University.

Established nine years ago by Duke alumna Penny Pilgram George ('65) and her husband Bill George, the initiative originally centered around female leadership. Over the years, it has evolved to include women-identifying and non-binary individuals, fostering a diverse and inclusive community of approximately 100 students annually. The program, funded by Penny's annual donation,  aims to create a cohort model that empowers women and nonbinary individuals to lead confidently in various contexts.

To join the initiative, students undergo a group interview, expressing their interest and commitment. Once accepted, they rank their preferences for local non-profits, determining their family groups. These groups, formed around shared interests, engage in weekly service-learning projects in collaboration with community partners. Notable organizations like Restorative Justice Durham, Note in the Pocket, and Girls on the Run offer students opportunities to apply leadership skills in real-world settings.

Central to the initiative's success is its emphasis on mentorship. Each student is paired with a mentor from Duke staff, faculty, or hospital staff, establishing a one-on-one relationship that provides tailored guidance and support. My mentor, Stacy Peterson, has been a guide throughout this experience. From navigating the challenges of university life to offering wisdom on effective leadership techniques, Stacy's mentorship has been a cornerstone of my journey. The one-on-one connection has provided professional insights and fostered a genuine friendship that moves past the boundaries of our official roles.

Under the new leadership of Sam Lopez, the program is now guided by a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion lens, ensuring that all participants feel seen and valued. Lopez emphasizes the importance of strong mentor-student relationships, especially for those entering traditionally male-dominated fields like Politics or STEM.

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Two women standing side by side smiling at camera.
Annika (right) with her mentor Stacy Peterson

Additionally, the initiative promotes self-reflection through regular meetings, cohort-wide events, and monthly retreats. These intentional spaces for introspection enable students to explore and understand their evolving leadership potential. For example, the feminist leadership session, in particular, encouraged me to shift away from traditional leadership techniques, emphasizing the importance of transparency, inclusivity, and empowerment practices.

Reflecting on my journey (so far) within the Penny Pilgram George Women's Leadership Initiative, I can't help but acknowledge the transformative impact it has had on my personal and academic growth. The program has been more than just a space for honing leadership skills; it has become a community where I found support and guidance. Through the program’s components, I've witnessed the tangible effects of leadership in action, realizing that authentic leadership is beyond titles or positions.

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Women running cross country in a race
Sanford student Katie Hamilton is a member of the Duke Cross Country team

To add to my personal experience, I spoke with Katie Hamilton, a junior majoring in Public Policy and French with a Politics, Philosophy, and Economics certificate. Katie, who captains the Duke Cross Country team and has participated in Duke Engage and Duke in Provence, joined the initiative to connect with empowered females on campus.

Katie and I’s experience, sharing not just the same academic pursuits but also family groups within the initiative, has been a testament to the power of forging connections with like-minded, empowered, and determined individuals. We work with Restorative Justice Durham to explore alternative forms of justice to address community concerns, specifically within our criminal justice system. This has enabled Katie and I to strengthen our leadership skills and build connections that extend beyond the spaces of the initiative.

Katie emphasizes the importance of understanding community needs for effective policy crafting, a concept we actively engaged in within our community project. She believes the program's leadership component is crucial in addressing the underrepresentation of females in corporate and leadership roles, providing a unique opportunity to develop collaboration and leadership skills. Katie advocates for a change, saying that “females need to take ownership of our strengths, to emerge as effective leaders in the future and avoid conformity to traditional masculine-centered leadership qualities.” She aims to use this mindset going forward in any job she pursues.

The Penny Pilgram George Women's Leadership Initiative emerges as a beacon for change for female students in a major where most of the core faculty are male. It empowers female-identifying students, encouraging them to embrace their unique leadership qualities and contribute meaningfully to the field of Public Policy or any field.

As I progress on my Sanford journey, I'm dedicated to integrating the valuable lessons from this initiative into my academic and personal growth. Also, I aim to contribute to the ongoing efforts toward gender equity and to encourage fellow female-identifying students to embrace leadership roles, utilizing our unique strengths. As members of Sanford, we are responsible for amplifying initiatives like these, cultivating a more inclusive and equitable future.

Annika Aristimuno is a second-year student from New Jersey. She's pursuing a double major in public policy and international comparative studies with a human rights certificate. Annika is a part of the Sanford School of Public Policy Communications department team and contributes as a researcher for a Bass Connections team. Additionally, she's enjoyed the continued development of her leadership skills through the Penny Pilgram George Women’s Leadership Initiative. Annika looks forward to attending law school, aiming for a career in immigration or human rights law.