Sports Journalism By Claire Kraemer
On January 14th, 2023, the Duke Swimming and Diving team faced off against N.C. State in Taishoff Aquatics Pavilion. The stands of the aquatic center were packed with friends, family and alumni. Emotions were running high in the humid, chlorine-scented room, and not just because it was Senior Day or a North Carolina rivalry.
It was the first time that the team was competing after their beloved Head Coach, Dan Colella, lost his battle to prostate cancer.
N.C. State walked into the natatorium adorned in the initials DC. They brought a bouquet of roses to lay in front of the block before each race. Duke wore DC caps with a blue heart. DC was written across arms and chests.
There was a moment of silence to honor Colella where his portrait was presented on the scoreboard. There was too much evidence for Sarah Foley, a junior captain, to ignore. “I was still trying to convince myself that he was going to come back,” Foley said, “That he was just out of the office, but they put a picture of him up and I broke immediately.”
N.C. State swept the meet, but Duke wasn’t concerned about winning.
Dan Colella started his coaching career after swimming at Sewanee, the University of the South. There, he served as captain for two years and graduated as the team’s all-time leading scorer. In 1986, Colella was the assistant swimming coach at Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce, FL. He led the women’s and men’s team to victory at the NJCAA’s four years in a row. In 1990, he started as an assistant coach on the University of Tennessee’s Women’s Swim and Dive team. He was promoted to Head Coach three years later and served there for twelve years.
In 2005, he became the Head Coach of Duke’s Swim and Dive team. For seventeen seasons he rewrote the program’s record books. According to Go Duke, his alumni competed in “NCAA Championships, the USA Swimming National Championships, Olympic Games, Olympic Trials, Pan American Games, Pan Pacific Games, World Championships, FINA World Championships and World University Games.” He coached 64 All-Americans and 24 conference champions.
When you entered the pool deck, Colella greeted you with a cheerful “Hey, brotha!” or “Hey, sista!” He made an effort to get to know you not just as a competitor, but as a person. He was tough but fair and after 38 years of coaching he understood how a group of 60 teenagers and 20-somethings wanted to be spoken to.
Colella was initially resistant to give Will Tenpas, a senior walk-on swimmer, a spot on the team. But once he was on the pool deck Tenpas said, “Dan treated me like anyone else, even though I wasn’t fast enough to be treated like anyone else.” Tenpas proved himself and served as a captain for two years.
Kate Mullin, a senior diver captain, said Collela was the first person to call Mullin outside of her immediate family when she finished the MCAT last summer. He was also the only coach who encouraged her to return to Boston for her fifth year of eligibility. “Right away he said, ‘You should go home and be closer to your family. That’s the most important thing.’”
Sarah Foley, a junior captain, was nervous to leave behind her club coach of nine years. She quickly warmed to Colella. “I feel like I knew Dan pretty well,” she said, “I knew about his family. I knew about how he was doing on a daily basis before he got super sick. And he did the same for me. Even when he was sick he still wanted to check in with me.”
Colella’s Instagram is full of photos alternating between the team and his wife Victoria, and their children Henry, George, Ellinor and Caroline. Foley is featured in one of the posts where four girls flank Colella with their arms crossed, like a team of Avengers. There are images of him preparing for team cookouts, welcoming Olympians back to RDU airport, and congratulating team members from convocation to graduation.
Now his tagged photos feature testimonies of grief and gratitude from alumni, colleagues, and loved ones. The comments are flooded with blue hearts.
His passing halfway through the season shocked the program, but the Duke Swim and Dive team had been watching his gradual decline for the past two years.
In December 2020, Colello was in the hospital for a week. In January, the team was notified that his scans revealed he had prostate cancer. It appeared curable so no one panicked.
In March of 2021, he announced to the team that the cancer had spread. That summer, his treatments intensified. For the 2021-2022 season, Colello stopped going to the morning workouts.
Still, there wasn’t a formal recognition of his deteriorating health until March of 2022. In the Hall of Fame in Taishoff, Tenpas recalled looking around to find that it wasn’t going to be a typical meeting. He said, “Whenever the whole team is pulled together in a meeting, divers, swimmers, all the coaching staff, and a couple administrators, you’re like, ‘Oh shit, something’s bad.’ We are either in trouble or something’s very wrong.”
Colella told the team the cancer had spread to his bones, but he was more concerned on how this would impact his swimmers and divers. Mullin said, “He was crying because he was worried how his illness would impact all of us and how we would do next year. He was worried about how it might affect recruiting.”
He never wanted the attention to turn towards him. Foley said, “He really wanted to celebrate the hard work everyone had put in and how much faith he had in what a great season the team could accomplish.”
The cancer’s spread wasn’t yet noticeable to the naked eye and Colella’s optimism was contagious. He checked in with his swimmers and divers constantly over the summer. Tenpas said, “When I was home I would get these calls from him and he would leave these voicemails saying, ‘I had this idea of what we should do for the team, what do you think?’” He wanted the team to continue business as usual.
“You could tell we were all he was thinking about and all he wanted to talk about,” Mullin paused and wondered aloud, “Maybe that was a coping mechanism.”
By the time the team returned in the fall, Colella’s condition had worsened. Once a man who stood tall with a pot belly and wire rimmed glasses, he now sat on the lifeguard chair or used a TRX band to support himself during practices.
The coaching staff tried to shield them from the worst parts of Colella’s illness. They covered for him when necessary and stepped back when he felt well enough to attend practices and meets.
After his passing, it was revealed that Colella hadn’t been writing workouts for most of the year. Carlye Ellis, an Assistant Head Coach, had been changing her format, heading, and style to match Colella’s voice. Colella attended captain’s meetings with his camera off and when he slept through them due to exhaustion, his assistants would explain that he had conflicting appointments. Tenpas explained that without the rest of the staff, “the whole facade would’ve fallen apart.”
Even so, his positive attitude wasn’t the perfect disguise. There was still uncertainty surrounding Colella’s health and those questions fell to the captains. “No one was saying anything explicitly,” Mullin said, “Everyone was asking us, asking the coaches, and looking around for answers.”
Tenpas said, “If the whole team had known about the ups and downs, I think it would’ve been really bad for the team.” He knew of the ups and downs due to his close relationship with Colella. He knew about the treatment that Colella thought would change the course of his cancer
just three months before his passing. Tenpas never viewed these conversations as a burden. “By the end,” Tenpas said, “it felt like I was able to help him in that way and repay the favor a little bit.”
By November of 2022 Colella was missing practices and meets entirely, but with his outlook the team didn’t understand how poorly he was doing until late December.
During reading period, the coaches announced that on Saturday, December 10th they would have a shortened practice and a meeting afterwards in Wilson Gym. When they walked in, they could see Nina King, the Director of Athletics, was in attendance. Tenpas said, “If she’s there it’s either really really good, or really really bad.”
It was the latter.
Colella arrived with a walker and was supported by his wife. It had been four weeks since anyone had seen him, and one week since Tenpas was able to reach him over the phone. He was even skinnier than before and wheezing after each step.
Colella wrote down everything he wanted to say, but kept turning to his wife for confirmation that he hadn’t missed anything. The painkillers made him forgetful. He was shaking while holding the piece of paper that announced that he was retiring at the end of the year.
Colella encouraged everyone to keep this quiet because he worried it would hurt their recruiting class. He ended the meeting by telling everyone to have a great Monday practice. He never wanted them to lose focus. Doak Finch was named Interim Head Coach.
People were able to hug Colella at the end of the meeting, but few knew it would be the last time they would see him.
That Monday, December 12th, a message was sent to the team asking for people to send in letters of gratitude to Colella. On Thursday, a reminder urged people to get their messages in by the end of the day.
At 8:45 p.m. the team received a notice that they would have a meeting at 9:20 p.m in Sharf Hall. “I kept telling myself that it’s just really bad. That he’s just in a really bad condition,” Foley said, “There was no way that he died.”
The team sat silently waiting for the worst. The first people to enter the room were two sports psychologists holding tissues. Then followed King, Ryan, and the rest of the coaching staff. It was another one of those important, horrible meetings.
Ryan spoke first. She said, “I think we all know why we are here.”
Foley put her head into her hands and drowned out the rest. People ran out of the room, others cried, and two girls had panic attacks. Foley said, “It felt like literal torture sitting in that room with 60 people crying.” Tenpas agreed and described it as a “bad dream.”
The Duke Swim and Dive team still had the bulk of their season remaining with no road map on how they were to continue. “I remember thinking that this would help the team in a weird way, but it wasn’t quite like in the movies where everyone’s having these superhuman performances,” Tenpas explained, “People really underestimate the negative effect of the stress, fatigue, and sadness that we feel.”
The weekend after returning from holidays and their training trip, Duke faced N.C. State. Scores and times were no longer of importance. All that the team knew was that they craved to be together. The next day on January 15th in the Duke Chapel, there was a memorial for Colella.
At one point in the service, they asked people to stand when they represented different communities in Colella’s life. His neighborhood, his buddies from college, and his kid’s friends stood until they asked for those who had been coached by Colella to stand. Tenpas estimates that around 400 people from across the country and world stood.
“You’re trying to put in perspective that Dan did all of this and brought all these people together,” Foley said, “While it’s perfectly normal to be upset, there’s a silver lining that he has done so many amazing things.”
For the rest of the season, Colella was honored in small ways that respected his humble demeanor. The team made swim caps with a blue cancer ribbon and Colella written on the side and shirts with “Brotha” and “Sista” across the back. There was a moment of silence in his honor at the ACC Championship.
After Colella’s death, Foley said she hated swimming, but she wanted to close the book on what he had started. While Tenpas said that no one reached “superhuman” level, Foley was pretty close.
At ACC’s, Foley broke the school record that she previously set for the 200 yard IM. She broke another one of her own records for the 400 yard IM by nearly two seconds. The women’s 400 m medley relay, which includes Foley, broke another school record. At the NCAA finals, Foley placed 8th in 200 yd IM and earned All-American Honor. She placed 9th in the 200 m breast. Mullin cried her eyes out watching Foley swim.
Even with her remarkable performance, Foley is burnt out. Even though current seniors are pressuring her to stay on for the role of captain, she removed her name from consideration. She wants to enjoy her season and fall in love with swimming again on her own terms.
Duke Swim and Dive will announce their choice for Head Coach in July, and while current coaches for the team have applied, Foley, Tenpas, and Mullin hope they will hire someone from out of the program. “I think change is very necessary,” said Foley, “I think it’s a breath of fresh air and life that the program needs.”
Hiring a new coach isn’t forgetting, it’s turning a new page. Mullin explained, “There’s always going to be a reminder that his life isn’t going to go away. That will never change no matter who is coaching Duke.”
At age 10, Jack Palmer’s grandmother told him they were direct descendants of two families who
came to America on the Mayflower in 1620. He was instantly intrigued. “While all my friends were playing sports outside, I was tracing my genealogy.”
In middle school, his parents decided it was time for him to start playing a sport. “I really wanted to get a trailer for my bike. They offered to buy it for me if I played seventh grade volleyball. It was transactional.”
He fell in love with the sport. Now a senior at Duke University, he scans into Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Duke Women’s Volleyball has a scrimmage with NC State. The team is already warming up.
Palmer’s been preparing since 1 pm for a 6 pm game. After the match, he’ll stay in the coaches office where he has his own desk for at least another hour uploading statistics for the team. When I ask when he’ll have time to eat, he shrugs and says, “That’s a good question. I probably won’t.” At the sound of a buzzer, Palmer leaves to serve across the court during warm ups. When he returns, he apologizes that the benches hadn’t been set up and worries that I’ll have to stand while the teams play.
Palmer was invited to work as a team manager during his freshman year. His high school club volleyball coach, Patric Santiago, was starting as an assistant coach on the Duke team, and recruited his former player to work as a team manager.
Moorea Wood, a then freshman and current senior said, “My first thought was, ‘This is so awkward that there’s a freshman boy here when we are all in spandex.’”
Even at 6’1” Palmer said, “The first thing I remember thinking about is how small I am.”
Palmer began by assisting in drills and joining in when the team needed an extra player in six versus six. “He’s hit me with a lot of balls over the years,” said Camile Nazor, a current senior on the team.
He quickly learned how to watch and code every touch of the matches. As he settled into the bench for the scrimmage between Assistant Coach Kelly Catanach Johnson and Director of Operations Mackenzie Cole, he brought up the volleyball specific software. There, he can track the outcome of each play and track what sections players are consistently hitting to. His eyes followed the ball vigilantly. When the bench cheered, his fingers typed quickly to log the touch before the next play began. Occasionally, he’s asked a question. In the first set, Assistant Coach
Jeremy Garcia asks if anyone’s had any hitting errors. With a quick glance at his computer Palmer responds, “no.”
During that first season, the team became his family. “It’s like having 18 sisters,” Palmer said. During their season, Palmer works at their practices six days a week from 8am to 11am. If the team has an away game, they leave on Thursday afternoon. Palmer hasn’t taken a Friday class during entire Duke career. His freshman year he dropped two classes to stay with the team. He refers to weekends away as “vacations with his best friends.” As Wood and Nazor told me about Palmer, they took out photos to share. Wood gushes, “I feel like we are acting like proud moms right now.”
Palmer’s relationship with the team grew and so did his responsibilities. He was able to provide the team with analytics that weren’t possible before his time on the job His junior year he was responsible for the Catapult software, a chip that is stored in the bras of players that tracks exertion to help prevent injuries. Palmer also began matching his statistics with the game video, which was another innovation that he brought to the team. At the end of each game, a player can look up her name and be taken to key moments on the tape. Cole said, “He went from never knowing anything about this coding to the summer before senior year interning as a data analyst for the USA team.”
Between sets of the scrimmage, I asked the freshman manager Nia Spells how her training was going. Palmer spoke up, “She’ll be better than me soon.” Meanwhile, Palmer has been approached by other universities to join their staff full time. Duke is even considering flying him out for their games next year.
When he spoke about his manager duties, his double majors in Psychology and History, and keeping up with his weekly genealogy blog he said, “It’s like sprinkles on the cake.” The entirety of the scrimmage, Palmer didn’t stop smiling. “I would do the job for free,” he added, “I mean, I did it for free my freshman year.” He is now paid through a work-study program, but he can’t be paid for more than 20 hours of work in a week. He spends close to double that amount with the team and staff.
Palmer refuses to have anyone make a fuss about him. During his sophomore year, Palmer lived in an apartment off campus. “He is always pretty satisfied with the bare minimum,” said Cole, who lived in the same building. “He was thinking about sleeping on the floor.” Cole had an extra futon and air mattress that she gave to him. As a gesture of gratitude, Palmer cooked Cole’s roommates a weekly meal of their choice.
For his birthday that year, Wood and Nazor gave him a set of towels. For months he had been using the Gatorade towels from the locker room. Nazor said, “It wasn’t like he couldn’t afford
the towels, he was living in a luxury apartment.” Quirks aside, the team takes care of one another. Palmer is a part of that team.
On January 1st, 2021, Palmer decided to keep a digital daily journal. It started as a challenge to himself to see how long he could keep it and he has never stopped. His journaling has been consistent for 822 days. “I think it’s almost as long as the Bible,” Palmer said. His word count is currently 799,048. That’s 15,911 more words than the King James Authorized Bible.
For Secret Santa during his junior year, Palmer searched up every time his best friend junior Sydney Yap was mentioned in his journal. He hand wrote every entry and gave it to her in a binder.
“He won’t ever tell anyone this,” Cole said, “but he keeps notes on his phone of things like what ice cream flavor you order so that when there’s something to celebrate, he knows to bring that flavor of ice cream.”
Palmer chose to accept a job in Boston at an advertising agency and turned down offers from multiple universities. It became clear that it wasn’t his love for volleyball that drove his work ethic. It was his love for this specific team.
While reflecting on his past four years he said, “I can’t believe it. If you had told me that all this would happen.” Palmer pauses, “You know, they’ll all be at my wedding.”
Jeredine is in 5th grade. She doesn’t know her age because her family fled violence in Rwanda
when she was only a baby to move to Durham, North Carolina. Each year, she chooses a different day to be her “birthday.”
This year, she decided her birthday would be on November 17th, the same day Lana Gesinsky, a senior at Duke University, was born. Since her freshman year, Gesinsky has worked with Jeredine every week through a program called the Kenan Refugee Project (KRP) within The Kenan Institute for Ethics, or Kenan for short. KRP pairs Duke student mentors with Durham refugees in their fourth grade to senior year to help them transition to school and life in the United States. The pair initially bonded at a desk in West Duke 101 over a shared love for art, but now spend their time over Zoom since the beginning of the pandemic.
Their friendship is emblematic of the countless relationships built between Duke and the refugee population in Durham. Since 2010, West Duke has been filled with a group of about fifty students every Tuesday night united under a common cause and the guidance of Suzanne Shanahan, the former Director of Kenan, and her husband Bill Tobin.
This was until the program was ultimately set up to fail by an institution that prides itself on teaching a set of moral principles. In the fall of 2021, Shanahan departed Kenan to become a professor at Notre Dame University with Tobin to follow her at the end of the year. Students who were passionate about the program were puzzled with how KRP would continue without their leadership. Their inquiries were met by silence from the leaders of Kenan. It appeared that a project that touted the need for a genuine connection between mentors and mentees, was going to end without an advance notice to either group.
But on the very last Tuesday of the semester, Tobin announced that Ada Gregory, the Assistant Director of Kenan would follow in his footsteps.
Shivangi Choudhary, who had worked with her mentee Ethaar since freshman year sent Gregory an email on April 22nd expressing her interest in helping Gregory transition into her new role and indicate students that would be willing to help run KRP the following year. On May 13th, five days after her own graduation, Choudhary followed up. The same day, Gregory responded saying, “We’ll be getting folks together soon!” On August 10th, Choudhary followed up again. On Monday August 29th, the first day of classes, Gregory finally responded: “We’re getting students together tomorrow at the regular meeting time and have lots of former students helping lead the charge this fall.”
Connor Blue, a senior, and Michael Romney, a sophomore, were two of the students who were contacted to “lead the charge.” They were contacted via email on August 29th after Gregory claimed at 12:55 PM to have a leadership team in place for the following day.
The Kenan Institute for Ethics website states that it is “an interdisciplinary think and do tank committed to promoting moral reflection and commitment, conducting interdisciplinary research, and shaping policy and practice at Duke and beyond.”
KRP used to be the definition of what Kenan did best: engage with the community in a meaningful way while teaching students about the ethical challenges associated with an issue. In Gregory’s failure to accept any student assistance before the first week of school and lie about the preparation that took place, she failed to abide by the mission of the institution she works for.
Choudhary was baffled. “Why would you accept responsibility for a program if you are not willing to put in any of the work?” she said, “Ada’s role never had to be extensive. All she had to do was reach out to seniors, make a plan, and set some expectations.”
Gregory was trusted with a project that was 12 years in the making. In the matter of months, she is allowing the program to fall apart.
Kate Brownstein, a senior in KRP, isn’t the type of student to let things go without putting up a fight. “I’m a very bossy person,” she said, and made it clear to Gregory that she was willing to put in the work for this program. She asked repeatedly to be given contact lists for families they had been helping for years so that new pairings with Duke students could be made. Gregory claimed she never had access to it.
On Tuesday, September 6th, Brownstein and Romney were finally given access to the Google Drive with all shared documents and contact lists from Choudhary. When she looked into the folder’s sharing options, Choudhary could clearly see Gregory’s email was given access to it in the spring.
Now Choudhary was infuriated. She says, “I think it was very deliberate that she didn’t respond to my emails until August. I think it was very deliberate that she told Kate she didn’t have access to anything when she had the Drive with her. I think it was very deliberate that she had a list of seniors who we said would be more than happy to help and she chose not to reach out to people. She had everything she needed to run the program and she chose not to.”
When Brownstein realized there weren’t enough mentors for mentees, she asked Gregory for assistance in expanding the program, but Gregory “was adamantly against gaining any more
Duke students or Durham students. She was very explicit in saying that we shouldn’t expand the program.”
KRP is a pillar of Kenan. It is advertised across their website. It is promoted on the walls of their building. Yet, a leader of Kenan is actively undermining any student effort to continue their flagship program. “They’re an ethics institute and this was handled completely unethically,” Choudhary says, “If you don’t actually take your own advice in your own life and show it to your students then that’s hypocritical.”
It’s been 12 years of building relationships with refugees in Durham. Jeredine will still spend her shared birthday with Gesinsky because current students are refusing to bail on relationships they’ve been committed to for years. But Gesinsky will graduate in the spring. Without an ethical leader to continue recruiting new students to mentor and keep in contact with the broader refugee population, this will be the last time Jeredine spends a birthday with a Duke student.
BY CLAIRE KRAEMER
Photographed by Claire Kraemer, November 7th, 2020
On Saturday, November 7th, a party erupted on the corner of West Main and Corcoran
in Durham, North Carolina. A tuba, a trumpet and a joyous crowd burst into the song “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In.” People ran through the streets with American flags on their backs, fluttering like superhero capes. An old lady drove by in a beat-up white Suburban, circling the block five times while crying tears of joy. A dance line broke out the cupid shuffle. A black truck stopped at the light and it’s radio thumped out “Another One Bites the Dust.” I lost count of the number of times I heard the lyrics “Fuck Donald Trump.” It was a display of pure jubilation. One could barely remember the anxiety of Tuesday, November 3rd.
That Tuesday night, my roommates and I stared at CNN and watched as John King reassured viewers that states were “Too close to call.” He manically zoomed in on his magic wall as votes for Donald Trump continued to stream in. We were dumbfounded and confused. Everything was awfully similar to the Tuesday four years earlier when I sat crunched over my laptop in disbelief as Trump was called to be the next president of the United States.
The scene that played out in my living room is an encapsulation of the political echo chamber that exists at Duke, and at private universities across the country. Students may enter universities to broaden their perspectives, but tend to find liberal majorities and widespread agreement. A
study conducted by professors at Hamilton College and Xavier University found that private institutions have predominantly liberal faculty, but their presence does not indoctrinate students into their belief system. Private institutions attract liberal leaning students, they don’t create them. Elite institutions like this one misconstrue the reality of the political nature of the United States, and therefore are ill equipped to create leaders that can effectively reach those of a differing political opinion. At Duke, it is easy to forget that over 71 million Americans voted for Donald Trump.
Ryan Champaigne is the Co-President of Swing NC at Duke University, a group that works to elect progressive candidates in North Carolina. He grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina, a town he describes as being in the “middle of nowhere.” Champaigne once witnessed a teacher’s son run through his school ripping a new-founded LGBTQ+ group’s signs off the walls.
When Champaigne arrived at Duke, he says “I thought it was great. Especially in the beginning. I was like, ‘These people. They really get it.’” He was soon disillusioned. “I heard somebody the other day that said ‘Imagine talking to a Trump supporter.’ Imagine it? It’s 50% of our voting electorate. It’s not that rare to find a Trump supporter, but I feel like people here just haven’t interacted with them.”
On an elite campus, it becomes difficult for people to even consider another person’s point of view. It’s not as though conservative students at Duke don’t exist, it’s that they aren’t included in the majority of political conversations on campus. Jack Smith, a student from Highland Park, Texas was hesitant to speak to me on the issue. His initial response to my inquiry for an interview was “It’s honestly not worth it to express differing opinions around Duke.”
When I finally got Smith on the phone, he told me, “One of the things that I find really shocking is that diversity is preached so highly around Duke, but not diversity of thought.” Without diversity of thought, we lack the ability to create political change beyond our campus.
Smith says, “Almost everyone who talks has the same opinion. If that’s all anyone ever hears, no one’s going to feel comfortable expressing their own opinion, especially when the university as an institution also kind of helps create this echo chamber by employing faculty who share the same opinions and having student organizations that share the same opinions.”
In 2019, Stefanie Pousoulides, a student at Duke, surveyed 1500 faculty members in Trinity and Pratt. She found that for each registered Republican professor, there were “nearly 13 Democrats.” The Duke College Republicans are no longer active on campus, while Duke is flooded with Democratic groups, from Champaigne’s own organization, to Duke for Biden and Duke Democrats. Duke University does not poll which party students are registered with, but in the 2016 election, Durham County Board of Elections reported that for Precincts 2 and 5, the
precincts that contain East and West Campus, 82% and 73%, respectively, voted for Hillary Clinton.
Just last week, Tucker Carlson stated that “You would have to be a desperately unhappy gender studies major with a degree from Duke to think defunding the police was a wise idea.” Duke’s liberalism was brought to the national stage by highlighting a department that graduates less than 10 students a year.
Tucker’s comment does not accurately represent Duke’s political history. Richard Nixon attended Law School at Duke, while Stephen Miller, a once infamous columnist at The Chronicle, is now a senior advisor to President Trump. Conservative masterminds have graduated from Duke, but now we protest when Republicans like John Bolton, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the UN, come to campus.
After election day, I assumed everyone on campus was as exhausted as I was. People exchanged knowing nods across the Bryan Center Plaza as if in mourning. I alternated between my zoom class and refreshing The New York Times home page. I anticipated a general consensus that people were ready to hear the news of Trump’s defeat, and that feeling was solidified on mid-Saturday when I felt like the entire world was celebrating. It was almost as if the state of North Carolina hadn’t gone red. It was as if 71 million people hadn’t cast a vote for Donald Trump.
That week, social media was flooded with posts about how one should be unfriended if they continue to support Trump in 2020. Champaigne detests this kind of attitude. It restricts the
healthy conversations each political side needs to have to better understand one another. He says that “It’s such a pessimistic view to have of America to think that there’s just half of the population that’s irredeemable. I just refuse to believe that.” The difficulty then comes to how one can facilitate conversations with those we do not agree with when students and faculty are overwhelmingly liberal.
In the week I spent obsessing over election results, it became clear that the limited interaction between ideological views on campus is representative of the greater United States. This isn’t a Duke University issue, but an issue in the lack of genuine interactions between conservative and liberal areas. Duke is situated in Durham County, where 80.6% of residents voted for Joe Biden. Duke also resides in the Research Triangle, a blue spot surrounded by red in a state that gained electoral votes for Trump. Cities in the United States are populated with blue voters, while rural areas are red.
People who fail to interact with areas outside of their own fail to arm themselves with the tools to have successful political discourse. No political science or public policy class can teach you negotiation skills if you shy away from conversations with your conversative uncle at Thanksgiving dinner.
Dr. Nicolas Carnes, a public policy professor at Duke, states that “No one’s persuaded by a stranger telling them what to do. People are persuaded when they feel like you understand what they need and what they’re trying to do, and you’re trying to help them accomplish that.”
Daryl Davis is a Black blues musician. Over the past 30 years, Davis has been able to convince more than 200 members of the Klu Klux Klan to give up their robes by befriending them. This is an extreme example, but the sentiment still stands: significant change occurs at an individual level.
In an interview with NPR, Davis said, “I went in armed, not with a weapon, but with knowledge. I knew as much about the Klan, if not more than many of the Klan people that I interviewed. When they see that you know about their organization, their belief system, they respect you. Whether they like you or not, they respect the fact that you’ve done your homework.”
We need to foster mutual respect instead of demonizing others based on their political views. A canvassing field experiment found that people were more successful in their political persuasion when they exchanged conversations without judgement. Both ideological parties need to break from their prejudices against one another. We can’t label our conservative family members as crazy or lost causes. We can’t throw our hands up when politics is brought up over Thanksgiving dinner. These family members aren’t outliers in political discourse, but representations of a larger demographic of the United States.
Students at universities have the privilege of being a bridge across generations in the United States. We connect to those around us on campus, to the younger generation who look to us for guidance, and with the older generation of our parents and grandparents. We are positioned to be the leaders of difficult conversations. Dr. Carnes explains that “Political persuasion tends to happen really slowly. And it tends to happen in the context of deep meaningful relationships.” Instead of closing ourselves in, students at universities like Duke need to reach beyond their insular circles and engage in disagreements.
As someone who has spent hours on phone calls with potential voters, Champaigne expresses, “I think that first, you have to recognize that you’re not always right. And you don’t know everything…But it can feel like you know everything when everybody around you also believes the exact same thing.”
Although Saturday felt like a victory, North Carolina Democrats lost almost every race. Every candidate Champaigne had campaigned for failed. He says, “It’s just so hard to think that we did a ton of work and then the candidates lost. It’s almost like we did nothing.”
Champaigne compares political work to the greek mythological figure Sisyphus, who was given the eternal punishment of pushing a rock up a hill. “And yet,” He says, “nothing is gonna change if we don’t talk to voters. Nothing is gonna change if we don’t get out there.”
By Claire Kraemer
I don’t fear death as much as I fear losing my mind.
I chronicle my daily life through photos, videos, and journals. While an outsider or my therapist might view this as a healthy way of processing my emotions and feelings, each time I reach for my diary or camera I consider that there will be a time when I need mementos to remember who I was and who I am.
I watched my grandfathers on either side suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia. Now my maternal grandmother, Nonie, is beginning to show early signs of dementia. Before I studied abroad in Spain she asked if I needed yen for my study abroad in China. Over Thanksgiving, she asked me if I needed help writing my college essays. While my family is now trained to laugh off comments like this, I feel a sinking in my stomach as I brace for when her confusions turn from funny to heartbreaking.
These incurable diseases are horrible and lengthy. I can’t remember my paternal grandfather, Grandpa Gill, without Alzheimer’s. I only knew his expressive eyes that would react to the world around him. When I began to form memories of my own, he had already lost his ability to speak and would sip his food through a straw.
I saw my maternal grandfather, Grandad, decline before my eyes. The last time I saw him, he stared blankly at my mom, unable to place her.
That day, my mom left the retirement home crying. She confided that she was wrought with guilt. She told me that before Grandad’s diagnosis they had passed a retirement home and he said in his iconic southern drawl, “Let me just tell you. If you’re ever thinking of putting me in a place like that, just let me out of the car right now, because I’m gonna run in front of that sand truck.”
He died in a nursing home after three years of living in one on March 30th, 2020. My mom said, “It was the absolute opposite of what he would’ve wanted if he was in control.”
My grandfathers couldn’t die with dignity. They died in pain and confusion. They died only after years of expensive, intensive around-the-clock care. They died after their souls left their physical forms.
They weren’t given the option to decide when their life would end.
In the United States, physician-assisted suicide is legal in only ten states and the District of Columbia. But in these states and district the laws completely exclude Alzheimer’s or dementia patients who would seek out this type of care. There, a physician must sign with certainty that a patient will die within the next six months.
There isn’t a clear timeline with memory loss diseases. Grandpa Gill rapidly declined for six years before passing away. When I was a senior in high school, my mom flew to her hometown with my black dress in tow because she was convinced it was the end for Granddad. My cousin sang “Amazing Grace” and the grandkids all called in to say their final goodbyes. He lived for two more years.
When I speak to my parents about the very real possibility that they’ve inherited a gene for Alzheimer’s or dementia, they are candid with me. My mom says, “I would hope that I would set something up. I can just tell you right now. If I am at the point where I don’t know where I am, and someone has to feed and bathe me, please give me some good medicine.”
But it’s not as simple as showing your mother’s audio recording to have approval for a physician-assisted suicide. Those who seek this type of care in the United States must be “capable,” which “is the ability to make and communicate health care decisions to health care providers.” For my grandfathers at the end of their life, this would’ve been an impossible task.
Physician-assisted suicide is currently legal in ten countries, with Canada having some of the most lenient policies. There, the criteria is that you have to have a “serious illness, disease, or disability,” be in a decline that “cannot be reversed,” and experience “unbearable or mental suffering.” Last year, 10,000 people received a medically assisted suicide compared to about 1,300 people in the United States. On March 17, 2023, Canadian law will include mental illness as a reason to request medical suicide and permit “mature” minors to seek this care as well.
Canada’s expansion has received a large amount of criticism. In a recent New York Times article, Ross Douthat stated that is “barbaric” to “establish a bureaucratic system that offers death as a reliable treatment for suffering and enlists the healing profession in delivering this ‘cure.’” AP News reports that Marie-Claude Laundry, the head of Canada’s Human Rights Commission said that euthanasia “cannot be a default for Canada’s failure to fulfill its human rights obligations.”
The inclusion of memory loss diseases in physician-assisted suicide does not mean there will be a slippery slope leading to doctors suggesting suicide for all cases that appear hopeless. Euthanasia is not the first answer to suffering, but the default Alzheimer’s and dementia care shouldn’t be waiting for someone you love to become someone unrecognizable.
Laws in the United States need to allow patients with memory impaired diseases to seek physician-assisted suicide. When patients receive a diagnosis and are still “capable,” they should be able to state that they wish to receive this type of end-of-life care. They will need a psychiatric evaluation which concludes that at the time of this statement they would not commit suicide if not for this diagnosis. A series of interviews should confirm their wishes for death with dignity.
In this statement, a patient will indicate at what point they wish to receive end of life care. My mom outlined her criteria, but physicians should create a more substantial list of options of symptom severity to choose from. These could include inability to recall names of grandchildren, children, spouse, or their own name, inability to speak, inability to swallow, and others. In this process, the patient will choose a trusted confidant who, in the case of the patient being completely incapable, has the right to make the final decision on whether to continue with the procedure.
Currently, DIGNITAS, “a Swiss self-determination, autonomy and dignity group” based in Switzerland, is the only organization that offers Americans and other noncitizens with more than six months to live this kind of care. Not everyone with Alzheimer’s or dementia can spend the estimated $8,000 to $18,000, not including travel fees, that DIGNITAS charges. The United States should not be outsourcing suicide to Switzerland. This should not be an option left to the extremely privileged.
The American Medical Association outlines a code of ethics that they believe doctors should follow. One of the rules states, “A physician shall be dedicated to providing competent medical service with compassion and respect for human dignity.” Opponents to physician-assisted suicide believe that the practice is inconsistent with everything a physician is meant to stand for.
But, also outlined in the code of ethics is that “A physician shall respect the rights of patients.” It should be the right of a patient to decide when their life is no longer the way they wish to live it.
Some may view physician-assisted suicide as a way to cheat death, a way to avoid the natural course of your life. It comes in conflict with many religious beliefs. In a letter released on September 22, 2022, The Vatican wrote that the act of assisted suicide was an “intrinsically evil act, in every situation or circumstance” and that it assumes the “false right to choose a death.” But I believe it is an option to mercifully end the suffering of not just the patient, but the burden that is passed to everyone they love. This right exists separately from someone’s belief in an afterlife or higher power. Prayer was not a sufficient cure to bring back my grandfathers’ memory once it was gone.
My dad often says that the love that one must feel for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia is the most selfless form of love. When he describes the way his stepmother loved his father, he gets misty eyed, and his throat closes up. He says simply, “You’re loving someone who cannot love you back…It’s an extraordinary form of love. And the sacrifice is amazing. A silent sacrifice.”
This silent sacrifice shouldn’t be the only option. Everyone should have the right to leave behind a life that they are proud of. I hope my parents will be offered this right. I hope I will be given this right as well. I hope to never need to review my neurotic chronicles for anything other than looking back on the “good ol’ days.”