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Lesley’s Leadership

student orgs




Lesley’s Leadership

How the DUU President Plans to Transform Student Programming

Reed McLaurin


Storyteller. Integrator. Servant-Leader. All around badass. That’s just the tip of the superlative iceberg I could use to describe Lesley Chen-Young. Since our GA days together, I knew that Lesley would become one of the most important bridges of people on this campus. The only question was what means she’d choose. I interviewed the quietly confident, thoughtful senior to find out just that.

It’s subtle, and, once noticed, it’s almost overwhelming. Every word that exists Lesley’s mouth has a purpose. Behind her bright eyes and unassuming smile, she carefully crafts her thoughts with a commitment and intentionality that underlie all facets of her life.

A DC native, Lesley grew up embracing her many identities. “The short version is Chinese-Jamaican-American. The long version is Chinese, Jamaican, American, Jewish, Haitian, and British.” Indeed, she has always drawn inspiration from Jamaica’s national motto “Out of many, one people.” Her high school friends even dubbed her “the Diplomat” because of her uncanny ability to navigate between often-rigid social circles.

In her early days at Duke, Lesley thought she might actually pursue international relations. But she soon realized she didn’t have to build a twenty-year career to bring people together. Why wait when she could foster student unity through positive shared experiences on campus?

“Pay it forward” and “Lift as you climb.” Between these two guiding principles, Lesley is careful to consider the impact of her actions before taking them. Always looking to develop her knowledge, skills, and body of experience, she finds ways to better others as she betters herself. As this year’s president of Duke University Union (DUU), she will have the power to give back and generate impact on a greater scale than ever before.

During her sophomore year, she turned a desire to develop social media and communication skills into support for 2016 Young Trustee Jamal Edwards’ campaign. It was through this campaign she met Jamal’s friend and then-DUU-president Pranava Raparla, who told her: “You have to be a part of this.” Pranava knows how to pick them. Two years later, Lesley’s passion for the once elusive organization has only grown in her first months at its helm.

“What’s DUU, and why’s that a question I have to ask?” I playfully provoke. Unencumbered, Lesley beams back: “Great question! DUU is the largest media and programming body on campus,” a conglomerate of 13 “committees” ranging from Small Town Records to Duke Student Broadcasting. (She listed them all off the top of her head). DUU uses its resources to support these groups with marketing and technology, leadership development, and organizational coordination.

In other words, they do the behind-the-scenes work “to provide all Duke students with creative and social programming to supplement their Duke experience.” But it’s not about recognition for Lesley. It’s all impact. “I’ll go to an event and think: ‘People here might not know DUU is behind this, but look at the memories it’s creating. Look at the space it’s creating.’”

Running DUU is a balancing act. On the one hand, she hopes to foster synergy between committees that aren’t completely aware of each other’s activity. “What if students in Duke Student Broadcasting were connected to students in Freewater Productions?” On the other, the uniqueness of these committees is what gives them such value. “Coffeehouse should not be Campus Concerts. Campus Concerts should not be Coffeehouse. That is clear.”

Externally, a lack of awareness of the many faces of DUU might mean students aren’t getting everything out of its programming. That’s when invisibility begins to bother Lesley. A program she designed to fill that gap is this week’s first-ever DUU Week, an extravaganza of face-painting, concerts, movie screenings, and other university-led Halloween programming. And by branding these distinct events under the DUU umbrella, she hopes students will go: “Oh, I didn’t realize that’s the same organization.”

Lesley is far more than her DUU presidency. In addition to pursuing her major in Environmental Science and Policy and minor in Economics, she sits on the Diversity in STEM Student Advisory Committee. She’s worked for The Rival, The Standard, and The Chronicle. The lists goes on. But building a resume is far less important than leading an intentional life. To her, that also means getting eight hours of sleep a night, reading non-Duke-related books for pleasure, teaching spin, and cooking her way through a cookbook. Well that one’s on the wish list. “Have I bought said cookbook yet? No. Have I watched many episodes of Chopped? Yes.”

With business school and work in environmental policy on the more distant horizon, Lesley is looking forward to a few years developing business skills in Chicago. No matter how she decides to push herself forward next, we’ll be lucky to have her lift the rest of us as she continues to climb.