John Drescher

Drescher: Professor mentors students during and after their time at Duke

“What bothers you?” professor Tony Brown asked 40 Duke University students and graduates. “If it bothers you and you can do a lot about it, do it.”

Brown, 71, is the kind of teacher you remember for the rest of your life. Of the 40 people at Duke last weekend, nearly all had taken one of his classes or are now doing so.

He gathered them for what he calls “36 Hours at Duke.” Brown teaches social entrepreneurship in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Many of Brown’s former students – now in their 20s, 30s or early 40s – had started a business or nonprofit, some while at Duke.

Brown invited them back to campus from Friday night to Sunday morning to work on an idea and to get re-energized. Alums were paired with a student; Brown said students can mentor alums. “They can be a spark,” he said. Some of the conversations were with the full group; some were informal.

“You meet with students and faculty members,” Brown told me. “You take a walk in Duke Gardens and get away from wherever your home is.” Alums came from San Francisco, New York, the Triangle and points in between.

Brown is friendly and charismatic. He likes to cook for his students. He dropped out of college twice and transferred twice before getting a degree from the University of Connecticut and an MBA from Harvard. He had a successful business career, serving for a decade as CEO of Covenant Insurance Co.

But he wanted more. He was passionate about organizational leadership. In his late 40s, he decided to pursue another career. He was a visiting professor at Duke in spring 1993. “My first semester was the most thrilling thing I’d ever done,” he said. He never went back to his old job and has been teaching at Duke ever since.

Brown’s class at Duke is unusual. Students work in teams on real-world projects that reflect their passions. They are graded on the results of their projects, class participation and a 30- to 40- page paper that Brown says “defines one’s moral code and identity.”

Students have, among other things, developed a students-teaching-students model for middle schoolers and started a recording label.

More than lectures

“We have one semester to improve the lives of either Duke or Durham, and all of our lessons are based around that,” said Sarah Darwiche, 18, a sophomore from Boca Raton, Fla., who participated in “36 Hours.” “It’s really about working on the project and developing ourselves as a person. It’s easily one of my favorite classes at Duke.”

Brown has an email list of 1,800 former students and stays connected with them. Among them is Charlie Mercer of Raleigh, 34, president of Race 13.1, a Raleigh-based group that produces half-marathons.

“Tony is one of those professors who is not satisfied lecturing students,” Mercer said. “He’s results-oriented and passionate. He wants to create an experience for students rather than just having them read out of a textbook.”

Work-life balance

Last weekend, Brown, with a mug of coffee in his hand, paced the room during discussions, asking direct, penetrating questions

While many of the “36 Hours” participants focused on a work issue or class project, some focused on the balance (or imbalance) between their work and personal lives.

Jay Sullivan, 20, a junior public policy major from Fairfield, Conn., is involved in an array of activities at Duke, from writing for the school newspaper to playing on the club baseball team. After “36 Hours,” Sullivan wrote a brave column for the Duke Chronicle about wrestling with the stress and anxiety from taking a full course load at a top university and managing a long list of extracurricular activities.

Probably the most terrifying thing he did at Duke, he wrote, was when he recently scheduled an appointment at Counseling and Psychological Services.

“I recognized quickly (during the ‘36 Hours’ weekend) how many current students and alumni also struggle with the same problems I face,” Sullivan wrote. “When you’re always busy being successful, there’s little time to figure out who you are and where you are going with your life.”

Brown started “36 Hours” a year ago and wants to expand it. He is focusing more of his efforts on supporting the young adults who have left Duke and are working hard, making their way in the world.

Brown doesn’t consider them former students. When they leave Duke, he believes their education is just beginning.

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