Duke’s Pathways to Excellence

A Beacon of Opportunity for Aspiring Students

By Zane Reep, College Adviser, Duke College Advising Corps

In the heart of Durham, North Carolina, Wendy House, a Duke University enthusiast and native of the city, has long harbored a fervent admiration for the prestigious institution. Just a mere 20-minute drive from Duke’s sprawling campus, House’s allegiance to the university has been unwavering since childhood. As the time approached for her to embark on her collegiate journey, there was no question in her mind: Duke was the epitome of her aspirations. Yet, despite her deep-rooted connection to the university, House grappled with a sense of uncertainty as she navigated the intricate maze of college applications. The daunting prospect of meeting Duke’s lofty admissions standards loomed large, casting a shadow of doubt over her aspirations. 

However, amidst the labyrinth of anxiety and apprehension, a guiding light emerged in the form of Pathways to Excellence—an innovative program designed to illuminate the path for prospective students like House. Conceived by Gaelyn Dent, a dedicated adviser with Duke College Advising Corps (CAC) serving Hobbton High School in Sampson County, Pathways to Excellence represents the culmination of a collaborative effort between Duke University and Duke CAC.

A program of Duke’s Office of Durham and Community Affairs, Duke CAC strives to encourage low-income, first-generation high school students from under-resourced high schools across the state to attend and complete higher education. Its overarching objective? To empower students with the knowledge, skills, and resources necessary to navigate the competitive college admissions landscape, particularly at elite institutions like Duke. 

For House, the transformative impact of Pathways to Excellence was profound. “Through the event, I gained invaluable insight into the qualities and attributes Duke values in its applicants,” she reflects. Armed with this newfound understanding, House approached the college application process with renewed confidence and purpose. Today, as she stands on the precipice of her collegiate journey, House’s dreams have crystallized into reality—she has been accepted into the hallowed halls of Duke University, poised to embark on a trajectory fueled by academic excellence and personal growth. 

House’s story is but one thread in the rich tapestry of impact woven by Pathways to Excellence. At its core, the program provides opportunities for aspiring students from diverse backgrounds, equipping them with the tools they need to realize their full potential. From low-income, first-generation students navigating uncharted waters to academically gifted scholars seeking to unlock new horizons, Pathways to Excellence offers a chance at support and guidance to all who dare to dream. 

Indeed, the significance of programs like Pathways to Excellence cannot be overstated, particularly in a landscape where access to higher education remains elusive for many. As Jaime Ceballos, a dedicated adviser at Person High School in Person County, underscores, the role of Duke CAC advisers extends far beyond guidance—it represents a lifeline for students navigating the turbulent waters of the college admissions process. “Duke CAC advisers serve as beacons of support for students during the transition and application period, offering invaluable assistance to first-generation students who may be grappling with the complexities of the college application process,” Ceballos emphasizes. 

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the inaugural Pathways to Excellence event marked a pivotal moment in the journey of aspiring students. After months of meticulous planning and preparation, the event unfolded on September 29, 2023, on Duke’s East Campus. For many students, it was a momentous occasion—a rare opportunity to step onto a college campus and immerse themselves in the richness of collegiate life. 

The day’s agenda was meticulously crafted to provide students with a comprehensive overview of the college admissions process, from insights into Duke’s admissions criteria to in-depth discussions on financial aid and campus life. Presentations from the Office of Duke Undergraduate Admissions and the Karsh Office of Undergraduate Financial Support shed light on the intricacies of admissions and financial aid, empowering students with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their future. Afterward, a panel of first-year students from Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill offered invaluable perspectives on campus life and academic pursuits, giving attendees a glimpse into the vibrant collegiate experiences that await them. 

As the day ended, students departed with a newfound sense of purpose and determination, armed with the knowledge and resources they needed to navigate the collegiate landscape with confidence. The event was nothing short of transformative for Isabelle Lynn, a student from Orange High School and an attendee of Pathways to Excellence. “I learned how to calculate college costs and gained a thorough understanding of what college admissions are looking for in applications,” Lynn reflects. “Overall, it demystified the admissions process and empowered me to pursue my dreams with confidence.” 

But the impact of Pathways to Excellence extends far beyond the confines of a single event. It represents a broader commitment on the part of Duke University to foster equitable access to higher education and support the next generation of leaders. Through initiatives like Discover Duke nights and open houses, Duke strives to engage with high school students from North and South Carolina, fostering connections and providing insights into the college experience. Moreover, Duke’s recent expansion of financial aid policies, including the Commitment to the Carolinas, underscores its dedication to supporting students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. 

As Dean Gary Bennett of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences aptly observes, “We know that students with greater financial constraints are more likely to choose colleges that are closer to their homes. Retaining talent is critical to our region’s success; Duke’s commitment to these students is also a commitment to the North and South Carolina communities they call home.” 

Finally, the inaugural Pathways to Excellence event stands as a testament to the transformative power of collaboration and community. Through the collective efforts of Duke College Advising Corps, the Office of Admissions for Duke University, and other stakeholders, the program provides hope and opportunity for aspiring students across North Carolina and beyond. As the sun sets on this inaugural chapter, we eagerly await the dawn of a new era—one defined by boundless possibility, unwavering determination, and the relentless pursuit of excellence. 

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