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Duke Reenvisions Student Experience Driven by Purpose With $11 Million Award

Biology professor Dan McShea leads students in a reflection activity as part of the “What Now?” program. This photo was taken prior to March 2020.
Biology professor Dan McShea leads students in a reflection activity as part of the “What Now?” program. This photo was taken prior to March 2020.

Duke University is creatively reimagining an enriched higher education student experience by building a bridge between the pursuit of knowledge in the classroom and the life students lead outside it, Duke University President Vincent E. Price said Thursday.

For many students at Duke and elsewhere, the preparation for college has been carefully cultivated. However, once matriculated, students must learn how to navigate the complexities of balancing academics and their future goals. To address the needs of the whole student, an $11 million award from The Duke Endowment, a private foundation based in Charlotte, N.C., will launch The Purpose Project at Duke, a campus-wide initiative focused on making matters of character, questions of purpose, and explorations of one’s life work signature features of the Duke student experience.

“This grant from The Duke Endowment comes at a time when students’ resilience and sense of purpose has never been more critical to their overall well-being,” said Price. “We are grateful for the support and partnership as we work to create innovative ways of fostering growth of the whole person and preparing our students for leadership in today’s complex, challenging and diverse environments.”

The Purpose Project is a collaboration led by Duke Divinity School, the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Office of Undergraduate Education. All Duke undergraduates, graduate and professional students will explore purpose as a defining feature of their Duke educational experience and participate in a broad multidimensional series of robust and complementary courses and programs.

The persistence of COVID-19 has led to fall semester limitations of on-campus residential population for undergraduates and in-person programs for graduate and professional schools. To deliver on the robust programming The Purpose Project has set forth and its commitment to be as inclusive as possible among a student body that will be widely dispersed geographically, the undergraduate curricular elements will offer in-person, online and hybrid formats. Many of the graduate and professional co-curricular programs will be delivered virtually, including talks, seminar courses and small group discussions, which lend themselves well to remote delivery.

While other colleges and universities have led singular efforts on purpose, meaning, character and vocation, Duke is a pioneer in delivering a holistic and campus-wide approach. Funding from this award integrates The Purpose Project into the university culture as a signature part of the student experience for all students thereby setting Duke apart from any peer institution.

Students will explore how to flourish as human beings, to enhance their resilience, to cultivate repose of mind, and discover how their education can address what’s now and passionately embrace what’s next. This revolutionary approach seeks to transform institutional culture by instilling confidence in students to identify goals at Duke and beyond as logical outcomes of their core values and to learn how to navigate a world with diverse views and beliefs. It champions a lifelong journey of curiosity through their sense of purpose in the world beyond themselves.

“Our founder believed that higher education had the ability to increase wisdom, ‘uplift’ and ‘promote human happiness,’” said Minor Shaw, board chair of The Duke Endowment. “This grant is a significant next step in our focus on student resilience and well-being, and it supports Duke’s leadership role in this important emerging issue.”

Over time, the program will be evaluated to provide significant takeaways for Duke and peer institutions seeking to understand the impact of programs on purpose and vocation in higher education.

The multi-year collaboration is led by executive committee members: Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Gary G. Bennett, the Bishop-MacDermott Family Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, Global Health and Medicine; Divinity Dean L. Gregory Jones, the Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Jr. Distinguished Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry; and Nannerl O. Keohane Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics Suzanne Shanahan.


Based in Charlotte and established in 1924 by industrialist and philanthropist James B. Duke, The Duke Endowment is a private foundation that strengthens communities in North Carolina and South Carolina by nurturing children, promoting health, educating minds and enriching spirits. Since its founding, it has distributed more than $4 billion in grants. The Endowment shares a name with Duke University and Duke Energy, but each is a separate organization. For more information, go to