The Interview USA
Duke University
Vice Provost and Vice President for Student Affairs

Mary Pat McMahon

When it comes to building inclusive, welcoming environments on university campuses, a number of processes have to be in place. The stage has to be set correctly to encourage students to come together despite their differences. Robust resources have to be in place to support them. Then, perhaps most importantly, students (particularly ones from non-privileged backgrounds) might have to be made aware that these resources exist. 

GoodCourse spoke to Mary Pat McMahon, Vice President/Vice Provost for Student Affairs (SA) at Duke University about providing people with the tools they need to make connections and build community, as well as how to connect them with these resources in the first place.

Mary Pat’s Journey

GoodCourse: What brought you to your current role and the wider field of SA?

I did my undergraduate studies at Yale, and when I first arrived, I felt like I’d landed on a different planet. It wasn’t a common destination for people from my town. I was excited to be there with people who loved ideas and were as driven and hard-working as I was. But I also needed a decent amount of resources to figure out time management and academic strategies, engage with faculty, and get into critical question-asking. That experience connected me to different administrators, deans, and support resources. I learned how crucial those operations are in helping to make sure that all of the students who come to any higher education (HE) institution can really thrive and develop there.

I got into SA work so I could give back and create more deliberate, intentional connections for other people who kind of landed on Mars when they got to college. That’s been my career throughline. I worked briefly in Graduate Education at NYU. I got a Masters in International History at the London School of Commerce. Then I spent twelve years at Boden College in Maine, where I was involved in all sorts of processes: individual pre-major advising, one-on-one support, mental health, wellbeing strategies, policies, and conduct. I also worked in Residential Life on programs that could create opportunities for students who came from all different socioeconomic backgrounds, racial identities, nationalities, gender identities…Then I worked at Tufts University, and I’ve been here now for four years. 

What I’ve been doing for the past 25 years now is trying to help make the universities I’ve worked for places whose resources fully, meaningfully impact the students coming in. 

GoodCourse: What initiatives have you been working on to improve cultural competency at Duke?

In the past few years, we introduced a program called QuadEx. It’s a living and learning strategy and scaffold through which we’re trying to ensure that every student who comes to Duke belongs from the beginning and understands how they connect to their academic mentorship. We want to create an intellectual experience for them with thoughtful faculty advising and ensure they get a chance to build a cohort of connections and friends from both their own lived experiences and backgrounds and disparate ones.

We have all of our incoming students participating in an experiential orientation where they join one of 20 different projects in their first week. They include things in the arts, farming, sports, and camping trips, and it’s an opportunity to build a cohort of students to do something together and help create that sense of belonging. 

GoodCourse: I understand Duke has a number of identity and cultural centers. Can you give us a brief overview of them and how you encourage student engagement with them?

They are standalone physical spaces that create opportunities for connection, advocacy, activism, and understanding one’s various identities. It’s particularly important in a predominantly white institution (PWI) for people to have spaces to find others who share aspects of their identity and help support each other. And so we have the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, the Women’s Center, the Center for Muslim Life, the Center for Jewish Life, and the Center for Multicultural Affairs (CMA). This includes API, Native and Indigenous, Latinx, and several other student communities. We also have the Duke International Student Center (DISC), the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, and the Low-Income First-Generation Engagement (LIFE) Office.

In 2020, we set it up so students at the beginning of their career could self-identity and put themselves into whichever center(s) best suited their identity. A lot of other universities use the data that one provides on their admissions forms to create their base of outreach for students coming in. But we decided to allow students to opt in themselves rather than having it assigned to them. People were worried not enough would answer or self-identify. The opposite has been true.

GoodCourse: How do you encourage student engagement with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) topics? 

At Duke, we’ve been thinking about this from a curricular and co-curricular level. A big thing we’ve been doing the past few years is thinking residentially about how our students live together. We used to allow freshmen to pick their roommates. In our new system, we use a set of questions to assign roommates to one another, being sensitive to people’s different needs. This allows people of different backgrounds to come together from the beginning of their college experience. At the same time, we’re not giving the underrepresented students the responsibility of being the teachers of their majority-identity roommates. We also ensure the staff support around our roommates is culturally competent, This goes a long way in providing support and authentic connection. We complement that with the centers, programs, and outreach. This all creates both intentional opportunities for connecting through identity as well as a community where peers of different identities can discover and engage with one another and find their way through college together. 

University campuses are one of the few places where you’ll find people from many different nationalities, countries, experiences, and backgrounds living together. In the past, there was the idea of just throwing everyone together and letting them figure it out. Now we know you need to be more intentional in your design to create a place of true inclusion and belonging.

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