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Five From Duke Named Schwarzman Scholars

Award provides for a year of graduate study in China

Five From Duke Named Schwarzman Scholars
Charles Berman, Max Labaton, Yunjie Lai, Kevin Zheng, Steven Soto

DURHAM, N.C. -- Five Duke University students and alumni have been named Schwarzman Scholars, a program that funds one year of study in Beijing, China.

Seniors Charles Berman of Durham, North Carolina, and Max Labaton of Washington, D.C., were named Schwarzman Scholars. They join 2019 Duke graduates Yunjie Lai of Chongquing, China, and Kevin Zheng of Glenelg, Maryland, and 2017 graduate Steven Soto of Phoenix, Arizona, as members of the Schwarzman Class of 2021. They are among 145 scholars chosen from more than 4,700 applicants worldwide.

The scholars develop leadership skills through a funded one-year master’s degree in global affairs, with specialization tracks in public policy, economics or international studies. Scholars are selected on the basis of leadership potential, entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to understand other cultures.

Students will study at Tsinghua University and live on the Schwarzman College campus, a newly built, state-of-the-art facility where classes are taught in English. The scholars will live in Beijing for a year of study and cultural immersion, attending lectures, traveling and developing a better understanding of China.

Berman will graduate with majors in visual media studies, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (Chinese concentration), and a minor in Spanish.  A filmmaker, Berman has studied abroad in China and Argentina, and has been involved in Duke Sport Clubs as their director of media for the past two years. He is also president and captain of the Duke Table Tennis team.

After his Schwarzman term, Berman plans to create and support border-transcending media content as a director, producer and artist.
Labaton, a managing editor of The Chronicle, will graduate with a degree in public policy studies, and minors in history and political science. He is a student leader of the American Grand Strategy Program, where he has organized and participated in on-campus panels and off-campus travel to better understand the history of international conflicts. 

Labaton has worked for the U.S. State Department at the embassy in Peru and for the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and previously interned on Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. He aspires to pursue a career in diplomacy and international security. 

Yunjie Lai, known as Caroline to her friends, is the first Chinese scholar from Duke to win a Schwarzman Scholarship. She graduated with majors in economics and international comparative studies with concentrations in China and East Asia.  She co-founded a cultural and educational media platform, Insight China, in 2014 and has served as the chief editor for the North America region since then. Lai plans to use media to bridge Chinese international students in the U.S. with China and the world.

Her interests in entrepreneurship grew through DukeEngage in Detroit and with the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, joining the latter as a student assistant to help foster student entrepreneurship on Duke’s campus.

Lai was also a member of the Duke Swing and Duke Chinese Dance groups. In addition, she started training in rhythmic gymnastics at age 6 and became the Secondary National Athlete of Rhythmic Gymnastics.

Zheng graduated with majors in computer science and biology.  He is passionate about the intersection of medicine and technology in improving health care access for underserved patients. He co-founded Optiml, a startup dedicated to using artificial intelligence to detect debilitating eye illnesses via retinal imaging.

At Duke, Zheng served as an EMT, published research on the biochemistry of “smart drugs,” and conducted clinical informatics research. Zheng aspires to be a leader in health artificial intelligence and is committed to developing equitable technologies through global collaboration. 

After graduating from Duke with a bachelor’s degree in public policy and a minor in political science, Soto joined Venture for America to learn how technology and entrepreneurship can combine for social good. As a civic technologist, he wants to use purposeful technology and design to strengthen democracies around the globe. Soto is the first person in his family to go to college and received the William J. Griffith University Service Award as an undergraduate. 

The Schwarzman Scholars initiative is designed to meet the challenges of the 21st century and beyond. Stephen A. Schwarzman, co-founder of the Blackstone Group, personally contributed $100 million to the program and is leading a fundraising campaign to raise an additional $400 million from private sources to endow the program in perpetuity. The $500 million endowment will support up to 200 scholars annually from the U.S., China and elsewhere.