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New $4.5 Million Gift Launches Academic Guides Program

The academic guides, in order from upper left to bottom right: Chase Black, Debbie Hughes, Katherine Jo, Joshua Sipe, Sarah Eisensmith, Erica Wallace, and Thomas N. Phillips
The academic guides, in order from upper left to bottom right: Chase Black, Debbie Hughes, Katherine Jo, Joshua Sipe, Sarah Eisensmith, Erica Wallace, and Thomas N. Phillips

Duke University has received a $4.5 million award to embed full-time advising and academic support professionals in its residential quads to help undergraduate students better manage the demands of academia and life. 

The five-year grant awarded by The Duke Endowment, a private foundation based in Charlotte, N.C., makes possible a new program called Academic Guides, which was launched this fall by the Office of Undergraduate Education. 

The program uses a holistic approach to delivering academic support services and guidance that incorporates an emphasis on well-being and personal development.

“Ultimately, students are here to achieve an academic goal,” said Kimberly Bethea, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education and director of the Academic Resource Center, who oversees the program. “We can’t think of them achieving their academic goals without taking into account their overall well-being. This program allows us to provide more immediate support where we don’t normally have it.” 

The program allows Duke to create a new model for coordinated, whole-student support, said administrators. Students currently have access to myriad services across the university: individual advising, learning consultations, long-term academic planning, peer tutoring, testing support, mental health services, counseling and stress-management education. 

The Academic Guides will help students identify and navigate all that Duke has to offer, ultimately guiding them toward a custom mix of support and resources in response to the student’s individual needs. 

“Students’ academic success is inextricably linked with their well-being. With rates of anxiety and depression on the rise nationally, we are committed to helping students navigate their studies with joy and emotional wellness,” said Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education. “We are hopeful that having knowledgeable, student-centered academic guides in residences on West will help us move in that direction.”

Because of COVID-19 precautions, the program is mostly virtual, for now. When Duke is able to return to full occupancy on campus, however, the guides will have offices in residence halls on West Campus where upperclass students live – perhaps as early as next spring. Physically locating full-time academic staff where the students are living will facilitate the guides’ ability to more easily develop informal rapport, assess individual needs and make referrals that students will follow.

Junior Danielle Kapustin, a student resident assistant in Edens dormitory, praised the early work of Joshua Sipe, a guide with experience working with first-generation college students such as himself, as well as student-athletes. 

“It takes off some of the pressure of having to seek help because Joshua has been coming to us. He’s very approachable to talk with about whatever may be on your mind,” said Kapustin, who picked up a quick stress relief tip from Sipe about trying a mindfulness exercise before sitting down for a study session. “I know that while many students are aware that certain support offices exist on campus, some students, especially first-years, have only seen their websites. Joshua has been doing a great job of humanizing the experience and making himself known around Edens.”

Having the guides focused on supporting older students, appealed to Kapustin. “When you are a first-year student, you have a lot of resources thrown at you, a lot of which can be easy to forget,” she said. “I support anything that helps students throughout their Duke experience.”
Planning for Academic Guides relied heavily on data from a multiyear research project that was also funded by The Duke Endowment, which focused on sources of stress in students' lives and ways they coped. The successful initial project established the foundation for and launch of the Academic Guides program.

“We are pleased that research through the Endowment’s Student Resilience and Well-Being Project contributed to this program in tangible ways,” said Minor Shaw, chair of The Duke Endowment’s Board of Trustees. “This new grant extends our investment in enhancing the undergraduate experience and supporting students at each step of their academic journey.”