PPS ’07 Senior Portrait: Jennifer Bonilla

Six internships in four years help chart her direction

Jennifer Bonilla (’07) joined Operation Smile in high school because it was different from other student organizations. The international nonprofit, which provides reconstructive surgery to children born with facial deformities in developing countries, pulled her from the comfort zone of her home in Miami Lakes, Fla., and introduced her to a worldwide community. Soon after arriving at Duke, she founded the first OS chapter on campus, and she has served as its president since 2003.

Public service connects student’s diverse pursuitsIn her junior year, Bonilla traveled to Nakuru, Kenya, to work with OS patients at Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital. She managed the electronic records for each child, making sure they were prepared for surgery. The experience was draining, both physically and emotionally, but also worth it.

“I saw poverty unlike any I’ve ever seen in my life, and it was not easy.” Bonilla says.  “But I feel I gained so much more than I give back. An experience like that really makes you question your role in our larger global society–is it positive or negative? And what can you do to make it better?”

While at Duke, Bonilla wrote for the Duke student newspaper, mentored local Latino students, tutored Spanish-speaking adults in ESL, served as an RA, helped charter the campus Cuban-American Student Association, and worked as assistant editor of the News and Notes Web site for the Journal of Health Politics and Law.

“I was impressed with the breadth and depth of Jenny’s involvement­­—on campus and in the community,” says Elise Goldwasser, the Sanford Institute’s undergraduate career advisor and senior internship coordinator. “She’s so unassuming about it. She’s amazing, really, a bit quiet, but she gets out there to do things. And she takes care of people too.”

Bonilla balanced school and extracurricular activities by choosing one focus for each year at Duke. In her freshman year, it was Operation Smile; as a sophomore she focused on working for The Chronicle; and during her junior year she traveled abroad to Rome and Kenya, then interned at the Florida State Attorney’s Office over the summer. She completed six different internships, and by working with Goldwasser, she was able to make the most of each one.

“Elise is fantastic,” Bonilla says. “After one internship turned out to be kind of a bomb, she helped me see that it was a way to learn what I don’t want to do. My senior year, I tried to look back and evaluate my experiences, to think about what I enjoyed and how to apply what I learned.” Through this process, she decided to go to law school. She plans to attend Emory Law School in Atlanta this fall.

Each year the Terry Sanford Department Award is presented to a public policy senior for individual achievement in leadership. Bonilla was one of approximately 10 students to be nominated.