Our Giving Story: Tanya Rolle Smith and Geoff Smith
Always Returning Home
For each of us, home can mean many things beyond the place we currently reside. Duke alumni Tanya Rolle Smith and Geoff Smith remind us what it means to seek comfort and community from the places we call home.
Home of the Blue Devils
Geoffrey Smith ’94 grew up in south New Jersey. He was a talented athlete, recruited by colleges in three sports, eventually being named an All-American football player coming out of high school.
Geoff was widely recruited and could have gone to any university in the country with a Division I football program. Among the schools that stood out, Geoff was considering Stanford, UVA, Syracuse and Duke — that is until he visited Duke in person.
“I fell in love with the campus, the people and the community on my recruiting trip,” says Geoff.
Geoff felt Duke offered the best balance of an exceptional education while also having the opportunity to immediately compete in every game out on the football field with a team that just won the ACC Championship. It was the total package.
Coming to Duke for Tanya Rolle Smith ’94, J.D.’98 also involves the Blue Devils — and her family’s brief history with the city of Durham.
When she was a young girl, Tanya lived in Durham, North Carolina. She attended the Duke School, an independent primary school, for preschool. Her family went to church at Duke Chapel and they enjoyed walking through Sarah P. Duke Gardens and the Gothic wonderland on West Campus.
When it came time for Tanya to choose a college, Tanya’s high school in Florida had a long-standing relationship with Duke. Each year, it would encourage promising students to apply to Duke to earn a world-class education.
In high school, Tanya remembers watching March Madness with friends and seeing Duke play. The Blue Devils were feisty and unrelenting; they punched above their weight and played as if they had something to prove under Coach K. In those years as Tanya watched, the Blue Devils became the national runner-up in men’s basketball. Suddenly, it all clicked.
The combination of strong academics and the camaraderie and sense of community among the students was very appealing. “Duke was my first choice for college,” says Tanya. “I was accepted early decision, along with three of my closest friends. Two more followed us with regular decision.”
Home of the Outrageously Ambitious
For both Geoff and Tanya, it meant something special to go to Duke. For Geoff, thinking back on his time here and how it changed him, there are moments that stood out about those early days as a student-athlete.
“When I chose to come to Duke, I didn’t know how or why, but I knew it was special. I didn’t know how it would make a difference in my life, but I knew that it would,” he says.
Geoff remembers starting as a true freshman just two months after graduating from high school. He played in front of 75,000 people in Williams-Brice Stadium at the University of South Carolina in his first college football game. The moment was eye-opening; he wasn’t in a small town in New Jersey anymore.
“On the education side, I walked into one of my first economics classes, and realized the professor teaching my class had been quoted in a Wall Street Journal article I recently read,” says Geoff.
His professor had worked with the president of the United States and his administration on an international trade deal. Geoff soon realized that at Duke the bar had been raised in all facets of his life.
“It set the tone for the rest of my Duke experience,” he says.
Along with their passion for Duke Athletics, Tanya and Geoff shared a mutual love for history. They didn’t yet know each other beyond names but had seen each other on campus.
“We socialized in the same circle of friends,” Tanya says. “Also, sophomore year, we had a Native American history class together.”
“Dressing up for class was not a priority when we were in school,” says Geoff. “Tanya noticed that I started wearing a collared shirt and khaki shorts every time I would show up for Native American history. That was my way of cleaning up my act for one class — to show her that I was interested.”
The education Geoff and Tanya received at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, along with the time they spent at sporting and social events, brought the two of them closer. They loved everything about their time in Durham and didn’t want it to ever end.
“The professors were always there,” Tanya says. “Whether it was to congratulate you on an achievement or you hit a road bump and didn’t know what to do, they were always incredibly supportive. They pushed me to be the best I could be.”
The experience at Duke exposes students to endless cultures, ideas, and opportunities — and students want to maximize their time among their ambitious peers. This is part of what makes Duke, Duke — the drive to do more and be more.
For Tanya, this included learning more about the university and its innerworkings from a fundraising perspective. As a phonathon volunteer for the Duke Annual Fund, she glimpsed the passion that Duke alumni have, no matter their class year or degree earned.
“I knew very early on that whatever I could do to give back was important. The Annual Fund phonathon was one way to start,” says Tanya.
Tanya’s ambitions also included attending law school. When it came time to apply, Dean Gerald Lee Wilson B.D.’61, A.M.’68, a beloved campus figure and one of the most renowned pre-law advisors in the country, wrote Tanya’s recommendation. She maintained her connection with Dean Wilson long after she was admitted to and attended Duke Law School.
These lasting and meaningful personal and professional friendships with faculty, fellow students, and others in the Duke community, such as Dean Sue Wasiolek ’76, M.H.A.’78, LL.M.’93, shine through in the experiences of Geoff and Tanya.
“There’s a sense of curiosity for learning about everything and everyone that was ignited when I was at Duke,” Tanya says.
“Duke became a home,” says Geoff. “We both lived and spent eight years in Durham, including Tanya going through law school. I was there for four and a half years and I would continue to return for football-related events, and obviously courting my wife.”
When it came time for a wedding, Tanya and Geoff chose to wed in Duke Chapel.
“Duke is a permanent home regardless of where we otherwise live,” Geoff says. “We love that Duke continues to change, yet there are constants that continue to exist. It’s comforting. Duke also continues to strive to be great at everything that it does.”
Leaving No Duke Stone Unturned
Years later, they’ve both had successful careers and are now in a position where they can continue to grow in their involvement with the university, including serving on numerous boards and giving back philanthropically.
Financial aid is near and dear to both of them. Additionally, Duke Athletics and the student-athlete experience are very important to Geoff. Even after 25 years of establishing connections to Duke, their wishes for how best to support the university continue to grow, which comes in addition to previous giving to Trinity and Duke Law.
“Once you’ve made the long-term commitment, it continues to challenge you to figure out how to maximize the ultimate contribution and think through the good deeds you’re trying to accomplish with it,” says Geoff.
For the Smith household, to be able to help the next generation of undergraduates at Trinity achieve academic, artistic and athletic excellence means the world. They know the ambitious scholars here are always ready to step up and help solve the next wave of challenges the world faces.
When asked about what they would say to the next generation of students coming to Duke, Tanya and Geoff offered this advice: “Follow your passion and be open to change,” says Tanya. “You may come in as an undergrad and have the idea of studying pre-med to become a doctor, which is great. However, take a step back every once in a while and reassess. If you follow your passion, your career will find you.”
“You have an unlimited number of Duke alum stones to turn over. Turn over as many as you possibly can and continue to educate yourself and learn both within the classroom and in the real world,” Geoff says.
The Smiths recognize that alumni are not just the students you shared classes with, or the professors who taught you. Alumni are everyone who has journeyed through the shared Duke experience, including those who have walked across the stage at Wallace Wade with a degree in hand — and those you’ve never met or will only meet in the future through the university. “The exceptional alumni base actually cares,” says Geoff. “They will pick up the phone if you call them — if for no other reason than because you also went to Duke. My experience has been that Duke grads are leaders in all they do and enjoy paying it forward to the next generation.”