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Dr. Zoila Airall: The Epitome of Diversity

As a Duke senior (oh god), I’ve had the privilege of taking courses with some lovely and enthralling professors. Dr. Airall, not only professor of Anthropology & Education, but also the Assistant Vice President of Campus Life, certainly tops that list. Her list of responsibilities, and her popularity, seems endless. As the oversight administrator over seven cultural centers, which include: the LGBT Center, Women’s Center, Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, Center for Multi-cultural Affairs, International House, Center for Jewish Life, and Center for Muslim Life, she works with a lot of campus leaders, and has maintained connections with many former students. She also serves as the liaison from student affairs to the religious life staff at the chapel and works with the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and University Center for Activities and Events (UCAE). What a mouthful! Whenever I meet with her or see her interact with other students, I’m always humbled and impressed by her superb memory of what’s going on in other students’ lives; asking questions and giving advice are not unusual for Dr. Airall.

When I started to probe about her background, she laughed and admitted to me, “You can listen to my stories, but don’t follow my example.” She emphasized the wonderful mentors who guided her, and the fortunate opportunities she seized at just the right time. Don’t let her advice fool you – she was one hardworking woman, and her stories reveal that. I shall provide some poignant details:

  1. Dr. Airall is super worldly… she went to elementary school in Costa Rica and spent her last two years of high school in Germany.
  2. She acquired her Masters in Counseling at Columbia University, and went back to her old high school, replacing the job of a man who had originally told her she wasn’t “college material.” (Zing!)
  3. While she worked at Bethany College as a Coordinator of Counseling Services, Dr. Airall was the first non-white faculty member (get it girl).
  4. She became Bryn Mawr College’s first Chief Diversity Officer, where she designed a program to recruit more minority faculty/administration members.
  5. Larry Moneta was the one who first informed Dr. Airall of a job opening at Duke. When she learned Duke was in North Carolina, she responded, “I’m not going to Duke! It’s in the South! I majored in American history as an undergrad… and I know about racism in the South (in that sass girl sass).” Of course after Dr. Airall visited this gothic wonderland of ours, she smiled and told me, “I fell in love with the place and with the people.”

When I asked how she became passionate about cultural engagement, she explained it was because of the way she grew up: “I had a lot of influences as a child – being told that I couldn’t do something because I was black, or because I was a little girl.” I wasn’t surprised that her fierce and classy persona developed as a young child, especially when she continued, “My parents told me I could do anything I wanted. I became a fighter. I just started advocating for myself.” Hell yeah! Her drive definitely serves as an inspiration to a lot of young women at Duke.

It’s always difficult to say my favorite thing about Duke, simply because there are so many appealing and wonderful aspects about this school. Dr. Airall’s opinion struck me with such honesty and truth. “My favorite thing about Duke can be the most challenging – it’s the constant change. Nothing remains the same, which keeps life fresh and interesting.” Her vibrant and optimistic personality truly came out when she expressed her opinion to me.

Although Dr. Airall seems to be involved in so many aspects about campus life, she also holds a lot of other interests! A pianist, organist, and volunteer in Durham public school education, Dr. Airall obviously has many talents. Her wisdom and life experience really shined in her advice for students like myself: “Making connections is my philosophy to life, for conversations, doing for others, advising, mentoring, friendships, and for things that I seek from others and that I give to others.” I’m glad that I was able to make a connection with her – and if you ever get the chance to, I would encourage you to do the same!

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