By Chloe Decker '25
“Hey look, it’s the general!” Stepping onto the field, I breathed a sigh of relief. Immediately, I was passed the ball. Like clockwork, I took two touches before relaying the ball over to my next teammate. To greet each other at practice, my team used a series of nonsensical nicknames that we’d developed over our years of playing together. Because of my ability to execute chips and through balls, I had been dubbed “the general” my freshman year. Four years later, I knew that every day at 3:30 p.m. I could look forward to my nickname and the steadfast camaraderie of my high school women’s soccer team. As we kicked the ball around, we would share and celebrate our personal victories, talk through the struggles we were facing, and push ourselves to be better on and off the field. I did not realize how fundamental this female-centered community was for me until I graduated high school and no longer had it.
Coming to Duke, I quickly realized that it is not easy to find non-exclusive all women’s groups on campus. To be a part of many of Duke's all women’s programs, one must enter the infamous application to interview gauntlet and hope you come out on the other side victorious. Oftentimes in this journey, female-identifying students share their deep desire for all women’s support systems, only to later be rejected from the same groups they wanted to be a part of.
Naturally, this constant competition does not breed an environment where female-identifying students feel like they can support each other. Instead, one typically feels they must fend for themselves in order to stay afloat in Duke's pre-professional "hustle" culture. It is through my frustration with this widespread Duke phenomenon that I decided to seek out a course focused on female empowerment, which led me to enroll in Sanford's Women as Leaders seminar this semester.
Logging onto Zoom for our first week of class, I was immediately struck by the faces I saw in each square on my screen. Cameras were turned on, people were smiling, and it was all girls; at that moment, I knew this was going to be unlike any other class I had taken before. To begin, Professor Alexandra Zagbayou asked everyone to share their “daily check-in,” a pre-class ritual where my peers and I get the chance to respond honestly whether we are feeling today or not so much. As time has gone on, this ritual has opened up the door to share about our personal hardships, update on exciting successes, and deliver hot takes typically related to food that always inspire intense debate. Three months later, I know that on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:15 a.m. I can look forward to sharing my daily check-in and the supportive sisterhood of my Women as Leaders peers.
As a young woman just beginning to come into my own, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of being able to express myself in an all women’s classroom where I know that everyone just gets it. Coupled with the diverse backgrounds and identities of each of my peers, we face common struggles as women at Duke that we all can attest to. This women-centered environment allows vulnerability not found in our other courses at Duke, due to the shift in power dynamics that comes from a coeducational classroom. Through our shared womanhood, we are able to push each other to have important conversations about the reality we face in battling stigmas affecting women in the classroom, in the workplace, and in society at large.
When talking with guest speakers in class, a common question that arises is, “What advice would you tell your younger self?” In response, we have been told to “learn ourselves and stick to our values” in every choice we make, to seek out workplaces that “have paid maternity leave and employees who look like” us, to “not let failure discourage you” from trying again, and the list could go on. By having tough conversations like this, we examine the leadership of women through a lens that is undoubtedly intersectional, often humorous, and always truthful. It is through this honesty that we gain the wisdom of accomplished guests who have walked in our shoes and have fought uphill battles to get where they are at. As we meet with women leaders in politics, education, nonprofits, and more, we are inspired to envision what our own futures will look like leading in these spaces.
In the words of my own classmates, we have learned:
"That the nuances of our experiences as women is ultimately our biggest strength in aiding others in achieving their goals." - Sarah Hasan, Class of 2025
"How I can practice holding my values, and story, and identity close to me and use them as the foundations of my leadership." - Samia Batchelor, Class of 2024
"To think of values, showcase our vision, and be vulnerable to those we trust." - Kaylee McKinzie, Class of 2025
“That there are endless life experiences and moments of challenge that facilitate the evolution of one's values and traits.” - Sophia Bae, Class of 2025
Over my next three years as an undergraduate student at Duke, I know that Women as Leaders will continuously impact my decisions, through the lessons I’ve learned and the support system I’ve gained of other female Duke students who just get it. It is through courses like this that my classmates and I get to better know ourselves, work towards building supportive sisterhood, and learn how to embrace our full potential at Duke and beyond.
Chloe Decker is a first-year student from Murphy, N.C., who is interested in studying public policy and its effects on inequities facing women and children.