Undergrad Experiences ‘Academic Citizenship’

First Duke senior Jimmy Soni read the books about the dramatic last years of the Soviet Union and its collapse. Then, thanks to an undergraduate research opportunity with Bruce Jentleson, got to meet the man behind the books.

Bruce Jentleson and Jimmy SoniSoni was impressed when he read former U.S. Ambassador (and Duke alumnus) Jack Matlock’s books about Russia’s post-Stalin-era culture and politics. This summer, Soni got the chance to talk with Matlock in person about his diplomatic service and the memorable years that marked the end of the Cold War.

“It was one thing to read Matlock’s books,” Soni said. “It was another to hear him tell the story, to see his eyes light up. I saw the progression of the Cold War, not just what happened, but how leaders reflected upon it and what it meant for U.S. and Russian history.”

A University Scholar majoring in ethics with an interest in U.S./Soviet relations, Soni interviewed Matlock and five other men respected for their roles in U.S foreign policy while working as a research assistant for Bruce Jentleson, professor of public policy studies and political science at Duke’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy.

It’s the kind of research experience that Duke faculty and administrators hope for all Duke undergraduates and the kind of education envisioned in the new strategic plan.

“My goal is to examine President Mikhail Gorbachev’s statesmanship and determine what lessons it can teach us about statesmanship in general,” Soni said.

The interviews will lay the foundation for a chapter in Jentleson’s new book, Profiles in Statesmanship: The Courage and Vision to Build a Better World, inspired in part by President John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. The book will examine the difference made by individual statesmen who took personal or political risks in the name of leadership.

Soni started his work in fall 2005 by reading popular and scholarly texts about Gorbachev. He turned in a research report, discussed it with Jentleson every few weeks, and after two semesters, began preparing to interview Jentleson’s professional colleagues about Gorbachev.

“The quality of Jimmy’s work proved he had the intellectual confidence and ability to do this,” Jentleson said. “When we discussed his reading, he not only told me things I knew, he analyzed the material and gave me his own insights.”

Recently elected student government’s vice president of academic affairs, Soni is interested the moral dilemmas of leadership. After analyzing Gorbachev’s decisions in the context of Soviet history, he felt challenged to think about the concept differently.

“We often see leadership as building or creating new systems,” Soni said. “But Gorbachev’s ability to break down old ways of thinking forced me to see it as an act of unraveling the past. Maybe it’s best to rethink what is already here instead of creating something new.”

Duke Endowment funds designated from Trinity College, as well as support from the University Scholars program, paid for Soni’s work throughout the academic year and during the summer. The college supports undergraduate research because it allows students to learn about the controversies in their field and how to address them.

“We believe it’s crucial to a Duke education; it prepares students to engage in their discipline,” Associate Dean Mary Nijhout said.

Duke officials say undergraduate research helps to foster one-on-one relationships between faculty and students, an experience often described as the intellectual highlight of college careers. This was true for Soni, who said he learned as much from Jentleson as he did from his research.

“As a thinker and a commentator, Dr. Jentleson is always connecting research with practice beyond the university. I call it academic citizenship,” Soni said. “Through him, I saw the power of using knowledge to accomplish good in society.”

Soni also appreciated Jentleson’s interest in him personally. “You don’t expect people like that to be nurturing to undergraduates, but he was. The assistantship is the most important academic experience I’ve had at Duke, but my relationship with Dr. Jentleson is even more valuable.”