At first the idea seemed pretty half-baked. Come back to Duke for 36 hours, the pitch went, and let's see what happens. But when Christopher Scoville '05 received the invitation in the fall of 2013, he focused less on the nebulous agenda and more on who was driving it.
"When Tony says, 'I'm starting this new thing,' you say yes," says Scoville.
"Tony" is Tony Brown, professor of public policy and guru to hundreds of students who flock to his courses on social entrepreneurship each year.
"He has this ability to provoke you to action," says Scoville, who co-founded Common Ground, an annual student-organized retreat focused on interracial dialogue, as a project for Brown's Enterprising Social Leadership class in 2002.
Last fall, Brown began doing the same for alumni, launching a series of mini-retreats aimed at kick-starting their entrepreneurial ideas. Called "36 Hours at Duke," the sessions paired twenty alumni with student hosts for a freewheeling day and a half of workshops and brainstorming. To date Brown has organized three "36 Hours" weekends, which he describes as a small-scale experiment in alumni engagement.
"It was a rare opportunity to have a very intergenerational group of Dukies working together," says Amanda Peralta ’12, who participated in a "36 Hours" session in April focused on Duke-Durham community relations. "It’s not always easy for alumni to be able to connect with Duke and have meaningful conversations right off the bat, and this program is laying the groundwork for that to happen."
Brown says he conceived the retreats after hearing many friends and former students describe entrepreneurial ideas that they hadn't had time to develop. He often advised them to carve out some time to spend at Duke.
"It's just refreshing and invigorating to come to a college campus," he says. "You meet interesting people. You take a walk in Duke Gardens. And you have a chance to work on whatever idea that's bothering you."
That was the case for Scoville, who was living in Kansas City and growing restless for a new challenge when Brown's invitation arrived. After participating in the first "36 Hours" in November 2013, he moved to Durham and took a job with the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, a nonprofit directed by his Common Ground co-founder Amy Lazarus '04. He is now working to launch a Common Ground-like dialogue project on campuses around the country.
"I think the whole point of the thirty-six hours was to disrupt your thinking, and that was certainly true for me," he says. "I came away with a lot of new relationships and some tangible things to work on, and to me that's a really rewarding kind of alumni experience."
Brown plans to offer two more sessions during the coming school year; he's also pitching the concept to various campus and community groups in hopes they will launch their own "36 Hours" pilots.
"I'm not sure our educational job is done when students graduate," says Brown, who maintains a mailing list of some 1,800 former students. "People still develop in their 20s. They still have needs, and there's no question in my mind there's a role for Duke in satisfying those needs."