Connect With Students Beyond The Classroom

From singing to tweeting, employees are part of a student's experience at Duke

Joshua Lazard performs with the Duke student gospel choir United in Praise, which is he is the adviser for. Photo by Corey Pilson.
Joshua Lazard performs with the Duke student gospel choir United in Praise, which is he is the adviser for. Photo by Corey Pilson.

As Deb Johnson sat in an advising meeting with a first-year Duke student, she clasped her hands in excitement as the student mentioned her interest in animals and biology. 

“What are you doing for spring break?” asked Johnson, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education. “You should really think about puppies!” 

Johnson, one of about 300 pre-major advisers at Duke, suggested a course that studies the relationship between humans and dogs as part of “Spring Breakthrough,” a program that offers students gradeless classes over spring break. 

Johnson retired as assistant vice provost for undergraduate education in January after 15 years in the position. She still works part-time for the University as a pre-major adviser. 

“Duke students are curious, fascinating, smart and ready to help the world,” Johnson said. “In most cases, I’m just there to point them to resources. It’s such a joy to be part of their journey.”

Pre-major advising is among the ways Duke employees can be part of a student’s experience at Duke. From advising student organizations to overseeing a work-study or internship, employees find the relationships with students valuable.

Joshua Lazard has learned the best way to connect with students is to spend time with them outside of a classroom or office.

Lazard, the C. Eric Lincoln Minister for Student Engagement at Duke University Chapel, is the adviser for the Duke gospel choir United in Praise. He meets with the choir, comprised of 14 students, once a week to rehearse for fall and spring concerts.

“I bring my authentic self to that time,” he said. “I want to create a space where students feel comfortable being themselves. It’s not valuable to me or the students if they’re worried about saying the right thing rather than sharing how they’re really feeling.”  

Natalie Tarn, a first-year student, meets with her pre-major advisor, Deb Johnson, former assistant vice provost for undergraduate education. Photo by Jonathan Black.Authenticity is an important attribute for Sonja Likness when she chooses Duke students who will work in University Communications as interns. Likness, Duke’s director of social media and content strategy, manages 10 students who help operate the Duke University and Duke Students Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Medium and Snapchat accounts. 

Likness guides students in finding the right balance between using their own voice and making sure Duke’s message is clear. In return, students keep Likness informed about the best way to communicate with their classmates. 

“We’ll say, ‘oh a student would never read this email’ and my students will tell us that it is the best way to get in touch with them,” Likness said. “I feel like I’m supposed to be in a mentor role, but they teach me so much. It’s one of the most rewarding parts of my job.”  

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