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How fortunate that someone like me could come into Sanford and immediately be up to speed. While I was excited to go back to school to study public policy, I was also secretly anxious about my background: I had been teaching 8th grade math for the past four years. Would I be behind my classmates who had worked in DC, were formerly consultants, or had been involved in politics for the past few years?

Then I heard about one of Sanford’s student clubs, DISI, or Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators. The club’s mission was to put together interdisciplinary teams of graduate students to provide pro bono consulting for social organizations, giving students a chance to immediately apply the skills they learn in the classroom and (often local non-profit) organizations extra capacity to tackle development, strategy, evaluation, and more. I was sold.

I had the opportunity to work on a team with smart folks from all across Duke who wanted to make the community better. These were students I never would have met otherwise – in addition to another policy student, our team had MBA students, a PhD in psychology, and a med student. For a semester, our team worked on two tasks with an education-based non-profit. Half of us worked to revamp processes related to selection and retention of board members. My half of the team began setting up metrics and tools for an impact evaluation project. While this non-profit funded AVID programs for students, grants for teachers in the classroom, and even some teacher housing, it really had no way of telling what the impact was or tracking outcomes.

After this first semester, I became DISI’s Executive Director of Finance for 2015. This was definitely me pushing myself to expand beyond my comfort zone, but I figured that’s why I came back to grad school in the first place. I was able to meet and present to the board of Duke’s Bass Connections as well as the deans of the Fuqua School of Business, Pratt School of Engineering, and the Sanford School of Public Policy and secure DISI’s first medium-term funding streams.

I am now grateful for my anxiety around feeling “behind” that ultimately pushed me to get involved from the get-go. My very first semester at Sanford, I was able to jump on a diverse consulting team with a real-life client. I met cool people and developed relationships with students from all over campus (something I’ve heard others complain about lacking). I felt confident and prepared after having gained experience that was immediately transferable to our spring consulting project. Upon interviewing for summer internships, I had two distinct teams and experiences to speak to.  I gained experience beyond the classroom in a collaborative environment all while putting knowledge in service to society. I even got to practice pitching funding requests to some big wigs—something I never would have envisioned myself doing just a year previous.

I truly believe Sanford is in a unique position right now, with energy swirling around innovation and social entrepreneurship, offering activities, clubs, and practicum courses for students to direct that energy. In the end, you can come to Sanford and take Sanford classes. Or, you can come to Sanford, get involved, and build something cool that makes the community better.

Note: DISI received funding from Sanford’s Innovation and Impact Fund.