Riyanka Ganguly

Riyanka wrote about her observations related to sexual health as a first-year student in her application to Baldwin Scholars for the question, “Based on your experience with Duke culture so far, what would you change?”.  She saw the gender norms and consequences of the dating “hook-up” culture and was dismayed by her peers’ lack of knowledge surrounding sexually-transmitted diseases, birth control, and responsible sexual behavior.  In this essay, Riyanka proposed the idea of a peer education program that could facilitate discussions and inspire behavioral change.

She received funding to visit the Sexual Health Peer Resource Center at Stanford University, which she used as an example of best practice.  During her sophomore year, she began floating her idea to both students and the Duke administration.  She encountered resistance and was blasted on anonymous social media sites.  Riyanka listened to concerns and fears with sensitivity, diplomacy, and patience.  She reflects, “[I’m proud] I decided to go through with the PASH (Peer Advocacy for Sexual Health) project even when I faced pushback from a loud minority. I learned to be confident and commit to what I believed in, and I also pushed myself to take a risk by staying the next semester to see the center open.”

PASH opened its doors on campus in November 2016.  The Center offers peer counseling and sexuality education by student facilitators, who are required to participate in a semester-long half-credit course to be eligible to staff the Center, and serves as a referral link to offices like Student Health, Title IX, and the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity.

Riyanka is one of those rare students who has followed-through on a big idea.  She took it upon herself to get the ball rolling instead of pushing the responsibility off to the University (“I have a great idea!  Duke should…”).  She has spent countless hours vetting her idea, incorporating feedback, weathering the storm of criticism, designing curriculum, teaching the house course, crafting a budget, marketing the program, and recruiting student staff.  Because she wants PASH to be sustainable, she has removed herself from leadership this year and will act as a consultant and advisor to a new set of leaders.

Riyanka credits three women for inspiration: “Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In finally validated the feelings of frustration and isolation I felt in leadership roles in high school.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg decided to follow her passions, despite facing so much sexism, stands staunchly for what she believes in, and has made a reputation for it.  My Aunt Lisa inspires me by the independent way she lives her life, the adventures she continues to have, and the nature of our friendship despite a difference of 40 years in age. She has especially affected my personal philosophies towards relationships in my life.”

At Duke, Riyanka has held leadership positions with Duke Student Government, where she will serve as the 2017-18 student body president, and with Dukes and Duchesses, an ambassadorial student group under the auspices of the Office of the President at Duke.

She has many pieces of advice for first-year women.  “Don’t be crippled by the fear of rejection.  Actively take risks both personally and professionally. Always question the basis of your interests, and ask yourself the question, ‘Do I really care about this or have I been socialized into thinking that this is the kind of work a woman like me should do?’. Question yourself and then challenge yourself to be confident, and explore other opportunities that you would have never before thought to have an interest in - it is the only way you will figure out what you truly are passionate about and what intellectually stimulates you.  Duke can sometimes be a place where you receive disrespect as a woman; remind yourself constantly of your end goal and never lose your confidence. Be prepared to have experiences that make you question your values, both personally, in terms of intimate relationships, and professionally, but also be prepared to excel past the roadblocks.  Keep your mind focused on the incredible amount you have to offer to this world.”

Portrait of Riyanka Ganguly