Without the funds to pay for the many expenses of an undergraduate education, college life can range from a struggle to a Herculean task. Add to that a lack of familiarity with campus life and its inner workings, the idea of thriving in college feels daunting for many first-generation (1G) students. These 1G students earn their admission to Duke just like every other student, and often come from loving families who want them to succeed. Still, without a college-educated parent to help guide them, they can feel like fish out of water — intimidated and uncomfortable to say the least, and lacking confidence at best.
The moment she launched a homemade rocket in her backyard, Yodit Gebretsadik knew she was destined to be an engineer. With support from the Rubenstein Scholars program, she is now pursuing her dream at Duke.Thanks to Duke’s groundbreaking David M. Rubenstein Scholars Program for 1G, low-income merit students, their experience at the university becomes less distinguishable from that of students who come from wealthy families. And while it still takes some time for college to feel familiar, the program’s scholars and staff become like family very quickly.
Financial aid for 1G low-income students is increasingly available at elite peer universities, but Duke’s well-thought-out program of student and parental support is a model for other institutions to emulate. Fueled by a $20 million endowment from billionaire investor-philanthropist David Rubenstein ’70, a first-generation student himself, the program evolved from knowledge gleaned from Duke’s 1Gs. First-gen students now number about 10 percent of the entire undergraduate student body – or 700 students. The 139 Rubenstein merit scholars (as of spring 2019) were chosen for their outstanding achievements, resilience and commitment to community service. They benefit from additional, ongoing mentoring and community building all four years, starting with a major six-week head start in the summer. The Summer Academy allows the Rubensteins to get acquainted with Duke academics, make friends and start acclimating to campus before their peers set foot on campus.
The Rubenstein Scholars program broadcasts the message that — like the program’s namesake — hard work and undergraduate financial aid are the 1G students’ keys to limitless career achievement. There is still ample financial aid and a variety of support available for all of the first-generation students who enter Duke each year, but the Rubenstein program provides a significant extra boost to its cohort.
“It gives you all the resources necessary financially to do well, and the way it's broadened my horizons about the world in general is pretty remarkable,” said Rubenstein Scholar Brittney Peacock ’21, from Cortez, Colorado, in the remote Four Corners area of that state. “I never have to ask my parents for money when I'm here. I can pretty much take care of myself on my own, which is incredible for a college student. Most people are very much in debt at my age.
“And then, socially and academically, it’s very supportive. All the people at the Rubenstein office are great — they feel like family. Every time I go in there they ask me how I'm doing, how classes are, if I need anything. The whole program is great, financially and socially.”
Come to Duke and see the world clearly
The Rubenstein Scholarship requires students to participate in personal enrichment activities during the summers after their first year. Depending on a scholar’s class and major, that could be study abroad, DukeEngage, an internship, peer mentoring, or a number of other opportunities. “After my freshman year, I did two study abroad programs,” Peacock said. “I went to Italy (Duke in Rome) and then I also did Duke in Oxford. Growing up, I hardly ever left Colorado. To go from being stuck there my entire life to going to Duke and being able to travel the world — which is something I always dreamed of — is amazing.”
Travel is encouraged for those exact reasons. In addition to broadening horizons, summer travel can lead students down academic pathways they might not otherwise have discovered. At Duke in Oxford, Peacock took a political science course called “The Modern Political System of Britain” and became hooked on European politics. She declared poli sci as her major this spring and hopes to participate in the Duke in Geneva program – a possible pathway to an internship and a career at the United Nations.
Sometimes Rubenstein Scholars’ travel experiences are even more powerful. Jabril Wilson ’21 from Manning, South Carolina, participated in Duke in Ghana after his freshman year. The experience was emotional not only for Wilson but for his father, who got choked up when Wilson told him he planned to go to Ghana. Both men grew up in Manning, a town in the “Corridor of Shame” – a collection of school districts along Interstate 95 that historically were neglected by the state. When Wilson spent time in Ghana, he recognized many of the same issues there that he saw growing up in South Carolina — lack of resources and an unfair system at work suppressing a dynamic culture of people doing their best to thrive.
The Rubenstein Scholarship provides a generous loan-free financial aid package for four years, including:
“Actually going and hearing other stories and engaging in the culture confirmed that studying the African continent was what I would like to do,” said Wilson. A class with African studies professor Charlie Piot initially piqued his interest in West Africa. “I wanted to combine econ, public policy and international development with West Africa and how it affects the people culturally.”
Wilson worked on an independent study with Piot this spring, analyzing the scale and effectiveness of international developmental models in West Africa. He returned this summer as part of DukeEngage Togo. (Piot’s success leading the Togo program for seven summers was part of the reason he has been named the new executive director of DukeEngage.) Wilson’s plan is to continue his research “for the rest of my time here,” likely followed by law school and a career in international development.
“Jabril is a special student,” Piot said, adding that Wilson’s South Carolina upbringing “makes him a passionate advocate for social justice in today’s global world. This summer was his second in West Africa – the first was spent in Ghana, an Anglophone country, the second was in Togo, a Francophone one – giving him an unusual diversity of hands-on development and cultural experience for someone his age. His commitment will pay off handsomely in the long term, as he pursues a career in the field of international development. I have no doubt he will be a leader in this field.”
A better launching pad
Like the larger population of Duke students, Rubenstein Scholars are a diverse group. Many come from rural areas or underfunded schools. However, scholar Yodit Gebretsadik ’20 attended an International Baccalaureate public high school in Jacksonville, Florida, where she was challenged by a rigorous curriculum and excelled in math and physics. Her Ethiopian immigrant parents emphasized education as the path to success, but encouraged their children to find their strengths. Gebretsadik found that strength in engineering, and she hopes to work in the aerospace industry. The Pratt School of Engineering attracted her because of the possibility of performing undergraduate research with a faculty member. Duke was already high on her list of prospective colleges because of its generous financial aid program.
When she was awarded the Rubenstein Scholarship, the program had just been announced. “When I looked it up, there were two articles about it,” Gebretsadik said. “I'm thinking, ‘This doesn't seem real.’” Assured that it was legitimate, she showed up for the first six-week summer academy, which is now a critical part of introducing Rubenstein Scholars to Duke. “The intro program was very interesting. They kept telling us, ‘You guys are our guinea pigs’ and I said, ‘We know.’ But I enjoyed all the people who work with the scholarship and all the sessions that we did. Everything was just super helpful.”
Gebretsadik came back for the next Summer Academy as a student assistant and again the following summer as the head student assistant, organizing all of the other student volunteers. So she has seen all of the summer academies that have been put on, and can vouch for their gradual refinement. “The class has improved immensely,” Gebretsadik said. “It's definitely more similar to how a class would be at Duke. It was a little disjointed when we first took the course, but now I love the structure. I wish I could take it now.”
Rubenstein Scholars interim director Minna Ng says that Gebretsadik has displayed qualities through her work managing the summer student assistants that will pay off in her engineering career. “She's basically the person who is like the big sister that makes Duke feel like a new home, and being the model for what college life is for students who have no model of that at all,” Ng said. “Yodit’s characteristics include one of extreme responsibility and a talent for detail and empathy. I think she will make a special contribution the field of engineering. She will likely be able to see through a lens of humanitarianism to channel her talents, to inspire collaboration and creativity, and to bring out the best in people.”
Like Gebretsadik, Neera Mohammed ’20 was in the charter class of scholars. Also like her friend, Mohammed is from an urban area and an outstanding high school program. She’s from Ewing, New Jersey, a township that is part of Trenton. Advanced students there have the opportunity to apply for the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP), a tuition-free, rigorous academic and cultural enrichment program for high-achieving, low-income high schoolers. PUPP participation lasts from 10th through 12th grades and exposes students to the resources they need to excel in high school and get accepted to an elite college. “That really spearheaded me getting into Duke,” Mohammed said. “It really puts a good light on the students who are working really hard to get to college who may not have the money or the resources through school to get to really good colleges.”
Mohammed’s Trinidad-immigrant mother and aunt both work in health care, and it was her plan coming to Duke to study on the medical school track. In high school, she took a psychology class at the local community college and loved it. So rather than majoring in biology, as is often the case for premed students, she is majoring in psychology and working on research with a faculty member. Sarah Gaither’s Identity and Diversity Lab studies the relationships among social identities — race, gender, socioeconomic status. Mohammed helps run studies with children, another passion of hers. She hopes to use her insights from this lab work to inform a career as a pediatric oncologist, but she could see a career in child psychology as her plan B.
The benefits Mohammed receives from the Rubenstein Scholars program are, for her, the next level up from her college prep high school program. “What kind of questions do you ask in an interview for an internship?” she said. “We also had a mocktail luncheon — how do you navigate professional conversation space with a drink in your hand?” Rubenstein Scholars also receive practical advice on how to spend their stipend. “We get this money we can use for food, we can use for books and we can use for travel,” Mohammed said. “If you want extra money for spending, how do you budget that money? I wasn't working my freshman year and my parents would try to help me financially, but they still have a house to take care of. So the financial support that [the scholarship] offered was one of the biggest things to me my freshman year. If I didn't have that, my parents would have had to drastically change what they were doing at home.”
We’re not in Kansas anymore
Many Duke first-year students suffer from imposter syndrome – the feeling that Admissions made a mistake in choosing them, they are fakes and that all of their peers are so much more successful and accomplished. Understandably, 1G college students are often more susceptible to the feeling they don’t belong. Even though these students matriculate at a top-flight university, without a family member to provide perspective and to help show them the ropes, it can be a much more challenging transition. The Rubenstein Scholars program starts building students’ confidence their very first day on campus. The Summer Academy addresses and begins dispelling impostor syndrome, while encouraging students to keep the heightened motivation that helped them to overcome obstacles and get into the college of their dreams.
Wilson, with his big smile and gregarious personality, has a fire burning inside that powers his laser focus on achieving his goals. It’s a fire that was lit by his parents, who experienced the painful shift from segregation to integration in rural Manning. Today, they both serve on the local school board in an effort to make things right for people who have been systemically denied opportunities. Wilson’s mission is the same. Ghana, where he found his passion for international development, proved to him that popular depictions of sub-Saharan Africa are inaccurate and destructive.
“The love came from the anger,” Wilson said. “From the commercials. From the news stories. Portrayal in the media. The books, the articles. You only see one side. There's more that should come to mind when you think of the continent of Africa. There's actually many more positive things over there.”
Peacock maintains a constant state of gratitude for the opportunities that led her away from a family situation in which struggle was the norm. A spring break trip to Kuala Lumpur with campus ministry organization Reformed University Fellowship elevated her gratitude further. Teaching English to students in a dilapidated school with poor sanitation really put her current life into context. “Everything about it was rough,” Peacock said of Malaysia. “I went through my own hardships growing up but I didn't have to go through anything like those kids were going through. It made me realize that I'm still incredibly privileged living here in the United States.”
Mohammed has found joy in the fundamental elements of a Duke experience, including extracurriculars. “We still have a lot of fun,” she said. “Freshman year I went to almost every home basketball game. I really enjoyed that. I just love how many events there are on campus. How there's always a movie showing in the Bryan Center or something at Penn Pavilion. I love going to events, especially the dance showcases. Also working at the Ronald McDonald House. That's something I've wanted to do for a really long time. I just love being in that space.”
Relationships with faculty have been important, too. “I spend a lot of time working with people who are older than I am and who are in real professional spaces,” Mohammed said. “I think that gives me a more mature outlook on life and it shows me the different paths people have taken. I really like getting that insight from people who have been in the same spot that I am or who have had different experiences.”
Opening doors, changing lives
Duke is a place that opens doors to all of its students and alumni. For many Rubenstein Scholars, the presence of open doors can be disconcerting at first. Many of them have had to be creative in making their own opportunities: Wilson completed a community college associate’s degree during high school, while Peacock earned about semester’s worth of credits from a nearby four-year college. Duke helps them walk through those open doors with confidence — providing guidance, experience and supportive people so they can navigate and take advantage of a multitude of resources and opportunities. Carpe opportunitas.
That carries over in many ways. Whatever they end up doing in life, Rubenstein Scholars receive the loud and clear message that they have the smarts and drive to do what they set their minds to. The friends they make at Duke and the people they share their story with get the same inspiring message. The university is enriched by the Rubenstein Scholars’ resilience and perspectives of the larger world, which are informed by challenges that many of their Duke peers have not had to face.
These merit scholars will not forget their roots or the hard work required to move forward. And keeping a bit of an underdog mentality with their growing confidence will serve them well: determination combined with a Duke education is a formidable package.
Simply, the Rubenstein Scholars program exists to make sure the best and brightest 1G students have everything they need to thrive at Duke and after they leave. “It doesn't really matter how you grow up or what kind of hardships you go through,” Peacock said. “If you really dedicate yourself to achieving something, no matter what obstacles face you, you can overcome them. Duke has definitely helped me see that.”
Many donors ask, “If David Rubenstein endowed the program, why does it need more funding?” Rubenstein’s endowment gift provided a firm financial footing for the program in perpetuity, but annual disbursements from his fund cover only about 60 percent of the program’s expenses. Key components such as the Summer Academy, the Family Program and the Professional & Personal Development Programs need additional endowed and expendable funds to help scholars take advantage of everything Duke has to offer. And investment is needed to develop additional programs for upperclass students and alumni.
Duke is a national leader in providing the holistic support that 1G students from low-resource families need. To sustain and continue to improve the Rubenstein Scholars program, it’s important to raise funds. Give to the Rubenstein Scholars program to ensure that Duke can recruit the best and brightest students and then support them through their college career.