Of the thousands of students who apply each year to Duke University, only a select few are tapped as Benjamin N. Duke Scholars.
They have stellar academic backgrounds. Exemplary records of community service and leadership. And they’re all from the Carolinas.
Established by The Duke Endowment in 1985 with a $10 million grant, the scholarship is designed to help Duke University develop the next generation of home-grown leaders. Through on-campus programming and opportunities for summer enrichment, the B.N. Duke Scholars learn more about where they’re from before they focus on where they are headed.
In addition to the B.N. Duke Scholarship, the Endowment also supports:
“We call it ‘grounded globalism,’” says Jenny Wood Crowley, the program’s associate director. “In their time at Duke, we want to help these outstanding students feel grounded and rooted – to develop a strong connection to the Carolinas – before they take their place in the world.”
Trustees of The Duke Endowment established the B.N. Duke Scholarship when Duke University’s national reputation was growing, but the number of students from the Carolinas was waning. Endowment Trustees were concerned, and so was the university. They hoped the merit scholarship would help the school attract top students from North Carolina and South Carolina, and make a Duke education more affordable.
The program’s namesake, Benjamin Newton Duke, was a Duke University benefactor who lived from 1855 to 1929. Ben Duke’s brother, James B. Duke, created The Duke Endowment in 1924.
Ben and James were born and raised in Durham, N.C., in a farmhouse built by their father, Washington. The brothers worked in the family tobacco company, but they also had business interests in textiles, railroads and hydroelectric power. They founded the company now known as Duke Energy, one of the largest power companies in the United States.
As their business ventures flourished, the Dukes shared their growing wealth through philanthropy. They contributed to Trinity College – which would later change its name to Duke University – as well as to hospitals, orphanages and the Methodist Church.
“Because our founding family believed in giving back to the region that gave so much to them, the B.N. Duke Scholarship reaches out to students who come from that same place,” says Charlie Thompson, the program’s faculty director.
Endowment Trustees eventually approved another $11 million for the program; a $30,000 grant in 2011 helped the university bolster its recruiting efforts through high school guidance counselors in the Carolinas. Earlier this month, Trustees approved $325,000 to sustain those efforts and to create a B.N. Duke alumni network.
Chosen as a Scholar
All residents of North Carolina and South Carolina who are accepted for undergraduate admission at Duke are automatically considered for the award, and as many as 15 freshmen arrive each year as B.N. Scholars. Crowley describes them as student leaders who have excelled academically and have demonstrated a commitment to their community through service.
“We call them ‘change makers,’ people who see things in the world around them and want to do something about it,” she says.
The award covers full tuition, room, board and mandatory fees for a total of eight semesters. It also provides stipends for two summer experiences.
With its strong service core, the scholarship is both a privilege and a responsibility.
During the first summer, the students go as a group on a service internship in the Carolinas. The second summer experience allows them to spend time by themselves on a project they choose outside the United States.
“We first give the students a collective experience in the Carolinas,” Thompson says, “and then they take what they’ve learned and apply it individually in the broader world.”
‘Chance to Dream’
For this year’s Carolina Summer of Service, rising sophomores in the program will spend 10 weeks in Georgetown, S.C. They’ll install a display on Gullah-Geechee culture at the county museum. They’ll provide diabetes and stroke education at a health center. They’ll work on an oral history project. And they’ll tutor elementary school children.
During on-campus meetings this year, the scholars have learned about cultural identity, race issues and service.
“We’re learning about the ethics of service – that community engagement is about working with others and engaging by listening,” says Meghana Rao, a B.N. Duke freshman from Florence, S.C. “Every time we meet, we get more excited about the summer.”
Jacob Tobia, from Raleigh, joined his fellow B.N. Duke Scholars in Marion, S.C., in 2011. He interviewed community members as part of an oral history project, and worked on a soybean farm. He spent his second summer experience in South Africa.
Now a senior, Jacob says the B.N. Duke Scholarship “forever changed” his life. After graduation, he plans to work in Washington, D.C., focusing on advocacy or public policy.
“Not only have I had the chance to get an incredible education at an elite university, travel across the world, and engage in meaningful work with the local community, I've also been afforded the financial independence to pursue my dreams after graduation,” he says. “Unburdened by student debt, I have the chance to dream as far and wide as I please… Suffice it to say, I was nurtured into the person that I am today through the B.N. program.”
Thompson says that’s the goal. “You have to stand somewhere,” he says, “as you look out across the globe.”
Learn more about the B.N. Duke Scholarship.