Natasha Duncan’s administrative role in the Honors College – she serves as Associate Dean of International Education and Affairs – prevents her from spending as much time in the classroom as she once did for the Department of Political Science.
But while her role at Purdue may have changed, Duncan’s influence over the university’s undergraduate students remains significant through instruction, mentorship, and guidance while overseeing study-away initiatives. The Center for Institutional Excellence recently recognized Duncan’s sizable impact by announcing that she is among the 2021 recipients of the Charles B. Murphy Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award, Purdue’s highest undergraduate teaching honor.
In this Q&A for THiNK Magazine, the political science alumna – Duncan completed her master’s degree (2006) and PhD (2010) at Purdue – shared details about her academic background, her approaches to teaching and academic mentorship, and what it meant to be recognized as one of this year’s Murphy Award recipients.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to work in education? Was there a specific a-ha moment?
A: I came to that realization after being in education. During my PhD training, the natural step after completing graduate school was becoming an academic, with the gold standard being working at a research institution.
I landed my first tenure-track position at Mercyhurst University, a liberal arts college in Erie, Pennsylvania. There, my appointment was in the political science department, where the program was undergraduate-focused. In the midst of my teaching there, I had my a-ha moment – that academia is where I wanted to be and I that enjoyed working with undergraduate students.
Q: Who inspired you to select political science and international relations as research areas?
A: My inspiration to pursue these fields came from my dream to work for the United Nations when I began college. I didn’t know how to get there or which course of study I should major in though.
I ended up studying Italian and French (it’s the UN after all, interpreters would be needed). I didn’t consider political science because I didn’t like politics (then!). It wasn’t until my senior year that I discovered international relations. My first international relations course had an internship component, and I was placed at an INGO (international non-governmental organization), which was located opposite the United Nations and which participated in United Nations meetings.
My BA is from Brooklyn College in NYC. I fell in love with international relations then, and came to realize it is a sub-field of political science. The summer after I graduated college, I interned at Amnesty International in their D.C. office. This experience furthered my passion for the field. Based on these experiences, I decided to focus on international relations for my graduate studies. The rest is history as they say!
Q: What is the main rule you try to follow as an educator?
A: My role is the guide on the side. As a guide or coach, I give students autonomy in their learning and expose them to new ideas or different opportunities to empower them to realize their potential and expand their imaginations of what they can do.
Q: What do you enjoy most about working with undergraduate students?
A: Mentoring. Mentoring students and helping them through their journey of discovery. Mentors were crucial for me being where I am today and attending graduate school in the first place. I am a Black woman and was a first-generation student and an international student. The possibilities of what I could do were unknown to me were it not for mentors who saw my potential, advised me, and championed me. For me, it is important to do the same.
Q: What is the most recent research project where students assisted with your work? Can you share a bit about how the students helped you on the project?
A: A recent project was one that I conducted with my co-authors, Brigitte Waldorf and Ayoung Kim. This project focused on the structural constraints that disadvantage high-skilled immigrant women in the international migration process, specifically, the hindrances to accessing the formal labor market created or perpetuated by admissions policies for high-skilled migrants and their dependents in the United States.
It was a mixed-methods study, with data collected from surveys and in-depth interviews with immigrant-dependent spouses as a central component. We worked with a team of six undergraduate students to collect survey and interview data as well as to transcribe and analyze the data.
This was the first time for all of the students to engage in this type of research. Their growth was palpable: from shyness in approaching potential respondents to making suggestions (good ones) for center-based sampling to employing their language skills (primarily Spanish) to interact with interviewees.
From this experience, three went to work with other faculty in other research projects. Four presented research based on the data collected at undergraduate symposia.
Q: Why is it important to you to provide international and intercultural learning opportunities for students?
A: Global citizenship is beneficial for society as a whole. We share a campus with people from around the world, more widely, we share a local and national community made up of groups with varying experiences and backgrounds.
Understanding difference and having an awareness of the interdependencies of the global community are important for fostering a climate of equity and inclusion as well as for developing civically minded and engaged citizens. I integrate global perspectives in all of my courses. In my administrative role, I also work with faculty and staff to incorporate intercultural learning in courses and programs offered by the college.
Q: How has working with the Honors College impacted the way you interact with students?
A: Working in the Honors College has intensified my interactions with undergraduate students. While I teach fewer classes since moving full time in the HC – because of my administrative appointment – my work as Associate Dean of International Education and Affairs has allowed me to have an impact on a more macro-level through my work with faculty and staff to create opportunities for intercultural learning off campus (via study away programs) and on campus through courses and workshops offered. At this level, the reach of my impact has broadened to more students, though indirectly. Today, the Honors College has more students engaging in some form of cross-cultural exchanges and global perspective-taking than when I started in my role.
I still meet with and mentor individual students too. I continue to serve as the faculty advisor for two student organizations: Purdue Immigrant Allies and Global Network Connections. This academic year, I also took on the role as what we call in the Honors College, faculty house preceptor, for Global House – a transnational, virtual community made up of Honors College online learners located across the U.S. and around the world.
I launched Global House with the assistance of colleagues and student peer mentors in response to circumstances precipitated by the pandemic. Global House provided a community for students where they could engage in a range of virtual, extra-curricular activities, including a peer mentor program, academic success workshops, social hours, conversation hours, cultural exchanges, and workshops aimed at creating a sense of belonging to the Honors College and Purdue.
Q: What is the most fulfilling aspect of winning the Murphy Award at Purdue?
A: I thank my colleagues for recognizing my work and commitment to student development. For me, what stood out most were the stories that my students shared at the reveal about the ways I’ve impacted their lives. Their affirmation was most fulfilling.