Blue Devil of the Week: Working the World from a Durham Cubicle

Cathy Penny has worked with Duke’s Global Education Office for Undergraduates for 24 years.

From her office in Smith Warehouse, Cathy Penny helps Duke students learn around the globe.
From her office in Smith Warehouse, Cathy Penny helps Duke students learn around the globe.

Cathy Penny

Staff assistant in the Global Education Office for Undergraduates

30 years at Duke (24 years in Global Education)

What I do at Duke: A Durham native, Cathy Penny remembers when the sweet smell of tobacco once drifted from downtown Durham warehouses during her 1960s childhood. Now, she works in one of those warehouses, the Smith Warehouse. These days the architectural landmark is home to Duke offices such as the Global Education for Undergraduates, where Penny works. Penny works with Duke students studying abroad. In a typical workday, she’ll deal with programs spanning the globe, in places like the United Kingdom, Australia, Spain and Japan among others. “I mainly work with the students through email to make sure their course load is approved abroad,” Penny said. However, electronic correspondence wasn’t always the norm. Penny, who now sees just a few students in office a month, recalls pre-Internet days when students filled the office, then housed in the Allen Building. They pored over course and program materials the old-fashioned way – in person.

What I love about Duke: “I like having a purpose,” Penny said in a wispy Southern drawl that gives away her Durham roots. “I would much rather work in an office than home because I love human interaction.” Penny started off her work life at Duke as an office assistant for the chemistry department and then university president Terry Sanford, from 1969 to 1974, before leaving Duke to have children. She returned in 1993 to the Global Education office.

A memorable day at work: Penny once stirred a student from vacation to complete last-minute study abroad graduation requirements. “He was literally on Myrtle Beach,” Penny said. Penny explained by phone that he needed to get back to Durham the next day to fill out paper work to graduate. The student came back, filled out the paper work and graduated on time. Penny appreciated helping the student, not just for his sake but his parents. She’d been concerned how they would feel if their son didn’t graduate.

What you may not know about her: “I love to square dance. My husband and I go square dancing in Chapel Hill every Friday night,” Penny said. “It keeps your mind active and your body active.” The couple dances with the Square Heels Square Dance Club.

Something unique in her office: A poster depicting the Eiffel Tower from a Paris vacation. Penny took the vacation, her only trip abroad, with co-workers and when she looks at the poster she recalls seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up as she took a night boat cruise on the Seine River. She also has mementos from co-workers’ travels lined up neatly on her desk: a small Cuban doll, a colorful Costa Rican bird figurine, and a tiny pair of Dutch wooden shoes, among other global knickknacks.

First ever job: “I worked at Home Credit Finance Company on Main Street in Durham. I was 18,” Penny said. She worked as a clerk who took people’s loan payments. The job taught her that “accuracy and customer service are important.”

Best advice ever received: “To make my small corner of the world the best it can be.” Penny, 66, said the quest to be her best grows more important as she gets older. “I want to work as long as I can. People say, ‘Why aren’t you retired yet?’ and I say, ‘I like my job.’”