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  • Writer's pictureJennifer

5 Lessons From: Duke Athletics

I am heading to a conference this week up in Durham, NC for Duke Women Alumni. I love this conference -- I've been before and it is exciting to see what my fellow alums are up to and the amazing things they are tackling.

I didn't start my time at Duke as a student, though. I was, first, an employee in the athletic department. I worked in the equipment room, doing hundreds of loads of laundry, doing inventory, inflating balls of all sorts, hefting swords around, sorting pom poms, and going to oodles of sporting events as a support staff member -- from wrestling to lacrosse to, yes, basketball. I met amazing people throughout my time there, as I did everywhere I worked in athletics, and I worked my butt off, hidden away from most people enjoying the athletics competitions, even moving through underground tunnels that most people don't know exist. My time there always comes to mind as a strong juxtaposition when I am attending the polished alumni events, and I am so grateful that I have a broad range of experience at an institution to pull from in my life.

The view from my old office of Duke Chapel

(In fact, I also worked at Duke as a contract negotiator later in an office in a tower overlooking the chapel from a distance, so I have literally scaled the heights there.)

I do think back often on my time in the athletics department, though, and I wanted to share a few things I learned in my time there that I think are useful for everyone:

1. You may have to scratch and scrape, but you can make your dreams happen. Sure, you can look towards the high-profile athletes at major athletic institutions like Duke, but I'd like you to turn your attention instead to the sports like wrestling. I cannot express how much I admired those athletes -- they didn't have nearly the support that the big-money teams did, so they made it happen for themselves. They rolled out their own wrestling mats, they emceed their own events. They wanted to wrestle, so they made sure they could.

2. Gratitude makes a world of difference. Look around at who is helping you achieve your dreams, especially the ones who are there behind the scenes. I promise there is at least one someone. Find a way to say thank you and that you see them -- it really makes an imprint. We had to be there for all the athletic events -- we never knew when we would be needed. This included nights and weekends, and Saturday mornings you could find us up early and in the lacrosse world. Those coaches brought up a to-go box of hot breakfast food every Saturday morning, leftovers I think from the team breakfast, and it was honestly the best food I ate all week. I made very little money there and definitely couldn't afford pancakes and bacon on my own. I always felt like my hard work for them was seen and appreciated, and it really was just a little thing that made being there long hours feel easier and friendlier.

3. The support of your community is probably bigger and more intense than you could know. Step back and look at it from the outside sometime. I remember being in the tunnels between the equipment room and Cameron Indoor Stadium once as the crowd at a basketball game really got riled up. You could hear them down there and feel it in your bones. For some reason, that moment made me feel the size and intensity of the support of the Duke community for their team in a way I never had. Feeling the power of the crowd from outside the stadium is a reminder of how much power we have when we all join together to support something, any singular thing. Don't forget the power of a crowd intent on supporting something they love in any context.

4. More people are involved in making big things happen than you may know. As an ancillary, there are often more steps involved in making something happen than you could know if you yourself hadn't done the job. Did you know that there are multiple people employed by major athletic departments doing laundry? Folding shirts? Ordering uniforms? Polishing helmets and reapplying decals every week? Not to mention the people who line the field (which I have done at another institution and is no joke), polish the wood floors, and hang the nets? It takes an army, quietly working smoothly and because they love doing it, to make sure that athletic event goes off so smoothly. We often only think about the athletes and coaches, maybe the trainer who is stretching someone over on the sideline, and the refs. But there are also all those people on the sideline taking and verifying stats, speaking on walkie talkies to folks outside the stadium to make sure the bus pulls up in time, and all kinds of other things. If something seems like it is running smoothly, it probably involves a lot of people and/or a lot of planning. If something is taking a while, just remember that you may not know the real process.

5. There is interesting stuff everywhere. There's a rose garden tucked in to Duke's athletic facilities between the basketball stadium and the football stadium. Most people don't even notice it, and they don't take the time to read the plaque there, noting that the roses are a gift in perpetuity from the Rose Bowl Committee. Why? Duke actually hosted the Rose Bowl in 1942. World War II brought fears with it of a bombing on the West Coast, and in order to help keep people safe, they shifted the bowl game to the east coast. As a gift from the Rose Bowl Committee for hosting the game, Duke has a rose garden now and forever. Look around where you are, take time to learn the hidden history, watch for the things that people may overlook.

So this week I will go and remember the feeling of booming crowd in the stadium and the quiet late nights in the laundry room, the smell of the fields with frost on them when no one is there, how good those hot waffles tasted, and the smell of Duke's roses. I never really forget it all, actually.

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