Sloan Scholars

Category: Perspectives

Angela Duckworth's GRIT book

Grit: Why It Matters

On November 8 and 10, Duke UCEM Director Jacqueline Looney conducted two workshops with Sloan Scholars to discuss the importance of grit, based on psychologist Angela Duckworth’s New York Times best-selling book on the power of passion and perseverance. Sloan Scholars took Duckworth’s grit test beforehand and discussed aspects of grit during the workshop. They also received a copy of Duckworth’s book.

Quick Takeaways

Based on responses from the Sloan Scholars who participated

Group of Sloan Scholars discussing grit-related questions

Grit isn’t just the perseverance to do the hard things. But it is also resisting giving up when faced with challenges you didn’t expect.

When discouraged or feeling inadequate, remember by showing up and giving your best effort, something will change.

Be more accepting of failures as opportunities.

Our talent is only part of the story. What we do with it matters.

4 Characteristics that the Grittiest People Share (from Duckworth’s Research)

  1. Duke UCEM director Jacqueline Looney delivers her presentation to Sloan ScholarsInterest: being deeply interested in what you are working on
  2. Practice: having discipline and effort
  3. Purpose: what motivates you to keep going
  4. Hope: a belief that your dreams are within reach

Workshop Photos

Zane and Dena in virtual escape room

Supporting, and Being Supported: Reflections from Duke UCEM Graduate Interns

By Dena Zhu Ho and Zane Swanson
Graduate School Administrative Interns for the University Center of Exemplary Mentoring

We worked together for the better part of a year as interns supporting the Duke University Center of Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM), a Graduate School-led effort to increase the diversity of Ph.D. graduates in the physical sciences and engineering. Yet the two of us have met in person only once—both at a distance and while properly masked, of course. Despite this, and all the other struggles during these difficult months, our final semesters of graduate school have been highlighted in no small part by our time with the Duke UCEM.

From Virtual Early Start in summer 2020—in which we had the task of introducing ourselves, Duke, and Durham to the newest Sloan Scholars (Ph.D. students recruited through the Duke UCEM) while stuck behind our computer screens—to the various online events and intern office hours held throughout the academic year, we received the opportunity to grow as colleagues and mentors to a group with boundless ability. Our work also involved close collaboration with the UCEM administrative oversight team, whose dedication and brilliance resulted in the awarding of a grant renewal—with commendation—for the Duke UCEM earlier this year.

In this post, we reflect on our individual internship experiences, what we’ve gained in tangible skills that we will carry into our careers, and the personal growth that will color all aspects of our lives. We are proud of what we were able to accomplish this year and thankful for all the relationships we built as members of the Duke UCEM family.

Zane and Dena at virtual escape room

Duke UCEM graduate administrative interns Dena Zhu Ho and Zane Swanson (highlighted) pose for a photo with Sloan Scholars at the end of a virtual escape-room session that they organized during spring 2021.

Dena Zhu HoDena Zhu Ho

Ph.D.’21 Mathematics

I knew I wanted to go into industry, so this Graduate School Administrative Internship provided the perfect opportunity for me to gain leadership and mentoring experience. As it happened, when I interviewed for the full-time consultancy job I will begin after graduating, one of the questions they asked me was about my administrative work experience. I believe this internship played a key role in me getting that job offer.

The experience of being a Duke UCEM intern really went far beyond my expectation. Despite the challenging environment that Covid has imposed on all of us, there was never a moment where I felt alone or overwhelmed about this internship. Rather, I was constantly reminded of the support system we have at the Duke UCEM, where we were truly appreciated for the work that we have accomplished. It is really a privilege to be able to build connections with our brilliant and friendly Sloan scholars, and very fulfilling to know that I took part in their journey to success.

More personally, this internship has granted me the opportunity to be part of an organized entity where I learned how I can turn voices into actions through coordinated work with the others, especially my co-intern, Dr. Swanson. The Graduate School deans working with the UCEM were never shy in giving us important tasks and letting us in on all the detailed programming. My opinions were valued, which enhanced my sense of responsibility while knowing that I was part of something big, and something where my efforts could make real differences.

As a graduate student, The Graduate School used to be just the place I check in when I first arrive at Duke or when I needed some official documents, but now I can proudly say I am truly a member of The Graduate School. My work has made an impact, and I have built so many priceless relationships with the deans, who always try their best to help us. I am sad that I am graduating and leaving, but I know that even if I am no longer at Duke, the UCEM team is still there to support me and to help me go further in my professional career.

Zane SwansonZane Swanson

Ph.D.’21 Evolutionary Anthropology

The Graduate School Administrative Internship for the Duke UCEM was more than it promised to be. When I first discussed the role with Dean Jacqueline Looney and other members of the oversight team, I envisioned an opportunity to give back to The Graduate School that I had found a home in. The reality of my time as an intern, however, was as much about personal growth as it was about helping to continue the successes of the Duke UCEM and the Sloan Scholars.

The position was dynamic, one day brainstorming the best solution to corral more than three dozen *very busy* Sloan Scholars’ schedules for social and academic events, and the next helping the UCEM oversight team as they planned and executed a grant renewal for the Duke UCEM, itself. Always working in close collaboration with my co-intern, Dr. Dena Ho, I grew as a member of a team that facilitated my development as a mentor and administrator.

My time spent with Sloan Scholars allowed me to view my academic career from a different perspective, which I hope provided the scholars with some helpful insights about their own academic journeys as they continue to stride into the future. With everything I have been able to be a part of, I now understand better the important roles that the administrative, academic, and social structures play in promoting successful graduate careers, something I might have taken for granted just a year ago.

Having said all that, when the idea of writing these reflections came up, my first thought was of problem-solving. Problem-solving, in a variety of forms, is an integral part of being a graduate student. For most of my graduate school experience this problem-solving felt insular, hyper-focused on the single goal that I was working toward. The work was meaningful, of course, but also isolating at times.

My work with the Duke UCEM was different, though. I learned and grew in an environment with colleagues, all far more senior than me, who offered respect and support toward the collective aims of the UCEM. The work felt important, and I was made to feel important to the work. In a year where it was easy to lose touch with so many things, I was tethered to the encouragement of peers and mentors. For fear of sounding too sentimental (if I haven’t already), I will leave it at this: I gained exactly what the Duke UCEM offers—a structure in which to thrive, built by those who care enough to support it.

photo of bubble in front of chapel at dawn

Sloan Scholars’ Self-Care Tips

During the pandemic, taking care of our mental and physical health has been more important than ever. We asked a few of our Sloan Scholars what some of their favorite self-care activities have been during the past few months.

Podcasts & Playlists: 




Try to get any amount of exercise into daily life, even if it’s just one push-up, is infinitely better than not doing any at all, and even tiny stuff can have significant positive effects on mental and bodily health!”

“Establish a semi-consistent routine that makes room for moments of joy, liberation, and appreciating/expressing gratitude for the time and moments we spend with friends and family as well as the time we get to spend alone with ourselves.”

Eating healthy makes SUCH a difference!”

Duke Campus Shot

Frozen bubble at dawn, in front of the Duke Chapel



Sloan Scholars Share Ph.D. Insights with High School Students through DukeREP

By Natalie Rozman
Ph.D. Student in Electrical and Computer Engineering

The Duke Research in Engineering Program (DukeREP) is a seven-week summer program where local Durham high school students interested in science and engineering are matched with labs in the Duke Pratt School of Engineering. The program helps students gain exposure to academic research and encourages them to pursue higher education and explore careers in STEM.

Pratt’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering decided to participate in DukeREP in order to specifically engage historically underrepresented minorities in engineering for this program. As a program coordinator for DukeREP, I helped the ECE department recruit a cohort in which two-thirds of the participants were ethnic minorities and half were female. I also knew that I wanted to get the Duke University Center of Exemplary Mentoring—and specifically the Sloan Scholars—involved.

As a Sloan Scholar, I understand the value of mentorship and knew that an informal lunch with a Q&A session would be a great opportunity for the high school students to interact with the Sloan Scholars. Through this event, the high school students were exposed to graduate school and the many postgraduate options offered by a doctoral degree in a STEM field. The high school students had a candid discussion with the Sloan Scholars, hearing not only the successes but also the struggles they faced during their undergraduate studies and as Ph.D. students. Through this event, the students had a better understanding of how to apply to graduate school, which factors to consider in choosing a graduate school, and what to expect once accepted.


Natalie Rozman (front row, third from left) with fellow Sloan Scholars and DukeREP participants.

Escape room

Building A Support Network for Underrepresented Scholars

By Caroline Amoroso
2018-2019 Graduate School Administrative Intern for the Duke UCEM

Caroline Amoroso

Caroline Amoroso speaks during a discussion about recruitment at the spring meeting of faculty members affiliated with the Duke UCEM.

Over the past year, I served as the graduate student administrative intern for the University Center of Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) at Duke, a new initiative funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and led by The Graduate School. Each year, this program provides support and supplemental funding to approximately 10 new Ph.D. students (Sloan Scholars) from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds in the physical sciences and engineering. In my role as administrative intern, my responsibility was to serve as a peer mentor to the Sloan Scholars, to check in with them regularly, to foster community among the Scholars, and to provide a student perspective in the oversight of the program in its first year.

During my early time as a graduate student at Duke, I was very involved with Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE), a student group that connects women graduate students from across science and engineering fields and hosts events where they can share experiences, resources, and ideas for change. Through this student organization, I found a community of like-minded women with whom I could air grievances, seek advice, and find support.

Perhaps most importantly, WiSE helped me find a sense of belonging, a feeling that helped me combat the isolation and imposter syndrome that commonly afflict graduate students, especially underrepresented students. When I became president of WiSE, I advocated to be part of conversations with several of the deans and associate deans in The Graduate School. Those interactions and the reward I felt for my work with WiSE made me curious about a career in administration and how an administrative position might offer a unique opportunity to influence campus culture and affect change.

Given that interest, when I decided to seek funding for a sixth year, the Sloan administrative intern position caught my eye. I was especially motivated by the opportunity to translate my experiences in WiSE into a more formalized program that would benefit students in academic departments where achieving racial and ethnic diversity has been a particular challenge—in the physical sciences and engineering.

Peer, Mentor, Friend

The Duke UCEM aimed to provide individualized support to students and build a community based on shared experience, with the ultimate goal to fix the “leaky pipeline” for underrepresented students in graduate education. The position offered an opportunity to make an impact on the culture and norms in the academic departments where it was needed the most.

Immediately after being offered the position, I was welcomed onto the Oversight Committee, which planned and carried out most of the daily functions of the Duke UCEM. I enjoyed helping to plan events and providing a student perspective on important conversations among the group. In those meetings, I witnessed how administrators workshopped ideas and collaborated to put concepts into concrete action steps.

By far the most fun and rewarding part of my role was getting to know the Sloan Scholars. I watched as they established social networks, found their footing in their departments, and began to discover who they would be in graduate school. My role was to be a resource to the Scholars, including helping them learn their way around campus with a scavenger hunt. I got to know the Scholars individually through group and individual meetings, where they updated me on their progress in the semester.

I also served in a less formal capacity, as the Scholars’ peer and friend. I helped to plan social events such as an escape-room event and a group viewing and discussion of the movie BlacKkKlansman, which fostered community. I gave students advice and listened to their reflections on their first year of graduate school.

Escape room

An escape-room outing was one of the activities that Caroline Amoroso (front row, center) organized for the first cohort of Sloan Scholars.

Making It OK to Ask for Help

In general, I found that the Sloan Scholars experienced the classic challenges that most students undergo in their first year. I had heard many similar stories from my peers in WiSE and in my department, but I was surprised and impressed that the Scholars knew how to ask for help so early in their careers. They knew where to find the resources that they needed. They were not afraid to approach their advisers or other faculty with questions or problems that they were experiencing. In their regular check-ins with administrators and with me, they voiced the same concerns, challenges, and feedback, indicating that they were being very transparent in their self-assessments and communicating their true feelings.

Having witnessed many students navigate the first year of graduate school, I recognized that the Sloan Scholars were exceptional in this regard. Too often, students are too self-conscious or insecure to admit when they need help—or don’t realize the resources available to them—until the problem has gotten so big that it has become debilitating or insurmountable. By providing a network of support that included peers, faculty, and administrators, the Duke UCEM created an environment where the Scholars were not afraid to seek help or admit they were struggling, which made it possible to better support them and find solutions to small problems before they became big ones.

Reflecting on this experience, I recognize how successful this first year of the program has been in several respects. First, the Sloan Scholars started graduate school with a built-in community of peers for support. This community has been nurtured by the resources of the Sloan program, but has also taken on its own life, with Sloan Scholars independently perpetuating the relationships with each other throughout their first year.

In addition to their peers, the Scholars also started graduate school with a built-in support network of faculty, administrators, and staff—the kind of support system that many students have to cultivate over years in graduate school. They have people to talk to at every level of the university if challenges arise (and in graduate school, they almost certainly will). This support system will help students recognize and combat many of the common obstacles, like imposter syndrome, feelings of isolation, and the intellectual challenges of becoming independent researchers.

The Importance of Individual Efforts

Personally, this experience gave me an opportunity to apply skills that I developed early in my graduate career in the leadership of WiSE in a setting where those skills could directly contribute to an important university initiative. Before this position, I figured that the hundreds of hours I spent on student group activities would pay dividends in terms of personal fulfillment and perhaps indirectly by helping me through graduate school. But my internship showed me that there are important roles in the administration where I can use my past experiences, like developing solutions to challenges faced by graduate students, considering how department and campus cultures evolve, and advocating for my fellow students. This position has made me seriously consider an eventual role in university administration as a future career step.

More broadly, this internship has also taught me about the necessary role that other members of the university community—including faculty, postdocs, and other staff—play in changing the culture around diversity in higher education. For underrepresented students entering Ph.D. programs who aren’t lucky enough to have a built-in support network like the one the Duke UCEM provides, the burden falls on them to create these networks on their own—something that is much harder to do for students who may already feel isolated and singled out in a department of people who don’t look like them. Through this position, I realized how much the efforts of individual faculty and staff members can contribute to recruiting, retaining, and supporting underrepresented students getting Ph.D.s.

As I move forward into an academic career and go on to mentor undergraduate and graduate students, I will keep in mind the tools that I have learned through my work for the Duke UCEM. I plan to apply this understanding and my central values around diversity to change patterns of representation in my field from the inside.


Caroline Amoroso (Ph.D.’19 Evolutionary Anthropology) served as the Graduate School Administrative Intern for the University Center of Exemplary Mentoring at Duke during the 2018-2019 academic year. She received her Ph.D. in May and will be starting a postdoctoral position in the Biology Department at the University of Virginia.

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