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With New ‘Empowerment Fund,’ Engineering Alumni Help Students Take the Next Step

Starting this semester, the WIN Empowerment Fund will help engineering students with financial need cover the incidental costs associated with securing academic and professional positions after graduation

When Duke student Katie Taylor showed up for dinner at the Nashville home of friend and mentor Stacy Klein-Gardner (BME, ’91), she only expected a nice meal, pleasant conversation and perhaps advice for her interview with Vanderbilt’s graduate program in mathematics education. She didn’t bargain on planting the seed for a new Duke Engineering program called the WIN Empowerment Fund aimed at covering the incidental expenses students face when they make their first big career step.

“Katie mentioned in passing how excited she was for the interview, but that she wasn’t sure how she was going to cover her GRE expenses, let alone her application fees,” recalled Klein-Gardner, adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt and member of the Pratt School of Engineering’s Board of Visitors. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized that while scholarship students might be incredibly prepared academically for their next step thanks to their Duke education, they might not have the financial means to take it.”

Stacy Klein-GardnerKlein-Gardner had gotten to know Taylor through the Duke Women’s Impact (WIN) Network, which provides scholarships for four semesters to two new female juniors each year. Soon after their dinner, Klein-Gardner heard that Idalis French, another of the WIN Scholars, was contemplating graduate school, which sparked an idea. She went to work setting up a SignUpGenius account to help support the students’ transition to graduate school.

Reaching out to colleagues involved with Duke WIN, Klein-Gardner asked people to sign up to cover certain financial costs or provide other assistance associated with the application process—a new professional outfit, a hotel room, a meal, editing an application essay, interview coaching and more. The Duke WIN members promptly filled all of the requests.

It wasn’t long before Klein-Gardner was recounting all of this to Janis Rehlaender (BME ’77), founding board member of The Given Limb Foundation and fellow member of the Pratt Board of Visitors (BoV) and Duke WIN. The two had already been talking about forming a version of Duke WIN focused on engineering, and the concept of supporting students trying to take their next step resonated with others on the BoV.

“We brought together the WIN members of the Pratt BoV to brainstorm ideas for helping engineering students,” said Rehlaender. “After hearing the stories of Katie and Idalis, and realizing that even a relatively small amount of financial assistance could make a big difference in helping students take the next steps in their career paths, the group was very enthusiastic about establishing this fund. It was clear to all of us that there is a real need, and that we could help address that need.”

Janis RehlaenderRehlaender and Klein-Gardner started putting together a proposal, which was vetted by several other groups at Duke to make sure the fund wouldn’t duplicate other programs. They also worked on a system for deciding who should receive the program’s support, eventually landing on financial aid qualification as an objective way to make decisions.

And so the WIN Empowerment Fund was born. Launching this semester, the program makes direct and positive impacts on the lives of students with financial need by helping meet expenses related to taking the next step after graduation that typical aid packages do not cover—such as graduate exam and application fees, travel and professional attire.

Applications may be submitted by any Duke undergraduate student who is studying engineering, of junior or senior standing, and receiving financial aid. Priority is given to students with the greatest need, and assistance is limited to a career maximum of $1,000 per student.

“Our WIN members, along with the entire Pratt BoV, are very excited about this. We all want to help Pratt students, and the stories we heard about the obstacles facing these young adults really pulled at our heartstrings,” said Rehlaender. “The WIN Empowerment Fund seems like a simple and straightforward way to affect our students’ lives and help them take the next step.”

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