Crystal Sanders remembers Chris Paul calling her in the spring of her senior year in high school. Chris, also a high school senior, met Crystal at a finalist weekend at Duke for the prestigious Robertson Scholarship. He knew she was the “real deal.” He also knew she had her heart set on attending Spelman College and took it upon himself to convince Crystal that her gifts were better suited to Duke. And fortunately, his strategy worked!
Crystal graduated from Duke in 2005 with a double major in History and Public Policy and completed a senior thesis entitled, “More Than Bricks: A Study of Black Schools In The Carolinas During The Age Of Jim Crow.” She served as the President of the Duke NAACP chapter and as a Resident Advisor on East Campus. She was also active with Dukes and Duchesses, Black Student Alliance, and the Cambridge Christian Fellowship. The Baldwin Scholars program selected Crystal as one of a handful of upperclasss women to serve as a Giles Mentor for the first classes of Baldwin Scholars.
Mentoring has always played a valuable role in Crystal’s life. Growing up, her grandmother taught her that no one could take away what she put into her head. She instilled in Crystal the importance of education. At Duke, Crystal learned what it meant to be a young, driven, and assertive woman at an institution where this persona is not always encouraged. She also made a conscious decision to stop comparing herself to others. Crystal noted, “As a woman, it is easy to get caught up in self-doubt (Am I smart enough? Am I attractive? Do I weigh too much?). I realized that I had too many dreams and too much to accomplish to give voice to inner thoughts of inadequacy. I am more than enough and I am determined to live my life with that mindset.” Crystal has shared these lessons with her mentees.
Kelley Akhiemokhali, Baldwin Scholar Class of 2008, connected with Crystal regularly. Kelley affirmed, “One of my favorite things to do is to sit and stare out of a window. A window can give you a glimpse of the road that leads to a more exciting future and also protect you from the vagaries of weather. In many ways, Crystal was a window for me during my time at Duke. As a Giles Mentor, she was always willing to share with me about her successes and struggles. She offered great advice, resources, and--most importantly--her time. In short, she was a generous spirit. The saying goes that we stand on the shoulders of giants. I have a feeling that Crystal is a giant many of us have to thank for being able to see a little bit further and succeed a little bit more.”
Crystal found her intellectual mentor at Duke: Dr. Raymond Gavins. Dr. Gavins, who died in May 2016, was a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and an impressive scholar. She reflects, “He taught me how to be a historian. He taught me the importance of writing accurate and inclusive accounts of American history. It was at the urging of Dr. Gavins that I decided to embark on an academic career studying and writing about ordinary black men and women who had very little material wealth, but were rich in courage and resilience. Dr. Gavins also modeled the principle of ‘lifting as you climb.’ It is because of his mentorship that I consider it a privilege and responsibility to support budding young historians.”
She completed her PhD at Northwestern University in 2011 and moved to Penn State University where she is currently an Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies.
Her first book, A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle, was published in 2016 as part of The University of North Carolina Press’ John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. She studied how working-class black women, in collaboration with the federal government, created the Child Development Group of Mississippi, a Head Start program that not only gave poor black children access to early childhood education but also provided black women with greater opportunities for political activism during a crucial time in the unfolding of the Civil Rights movement.
Crystal has important advice for incoming first-year women: “Put yourself out there and meet new people. The first semester of an academic year is a time when most people are open to meeting and interacting with strangers. Knock on the door of a student you do not know and expand your social circle. Duke brings together some of the best, brightest, and most interesting people in the world. Not only will you make new friends, but also, you will learn something new. All of the knowledge gained in college will not be acquired in classrooms. Your peers have stories to tell and lessons to share.”
Just ask her classmate Chris Paul.