Senior Stories: Inaugural GGS Graduate Reflects on Her Time at Duke

Emma sits at a desk giving a presentation. The screen behind her reads "TERFs in the Heart of Empire"p

Students often start at Duke thinking they’ll study one thing before veering off in a completely different direction. Emma Cairns, a senior, is no exception. 

When she started at Duke, Cairns saw herself majoring in Biomedical Engineering, but after taking a Writing 101 course on feminist rhetoric, she felt her loyalties wavering. She declared as a GSF major her sophomore year, but still felt like there was a piece missing from her academic endeavors.  

Now, Cairns is about the become the first Duke student to graduate with a major in Global Gender Studies, an interdepartmental major that debuted Cairns’ junior year, drawing together courses from GSF and International Comparative Studies.  

“When I first saw a tweet about it and went to the website to read the requirements, it felt a little like I was having a very nice and practical dream,” Cairns said of the major, which looks at gender, sexuality and feminism across academic disciplines. 

“But it wasn’t a dream! The professors I’ve worked with have been willing to sit with and work through my questions and modes of inquiry; have supported my delving into and out of a senior honors research project with all the whirlwinds of emotion and ever-changing directions that took me in; and have taught, listened to and guided myself and many others in the various paths on offer to students through these departments.” 

  Cairns cited the “truly exceptional” professors and mentors she was able to work with in her time in Global Gender Studies. “They have gone over and beyond in providing for their students,” Cairns said.  

She also said she was never discouraged from exploring whatever caught her attention, whether for a class or simply to satisfy her own curiosity. “It’s been a blessing to have professors that have allowed, and often encouraged, students to produce non-normative but still informative works,” she added. 

 After graduation, Cairns plans to return to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland. She’d like to eventually become a librarian and plans on working for a few years in entry-level positions at the library before applying for a master’s degree in library studies. She hopes she’ll be able to put what she learned in the classroom at Duke into practice.  

“It’s been a privilege to be a test dummy for what classes do and do not fit the major requirements, and a joy to be able to incorporate the numerous different academic aspects that have excited me in my four years here into one cohesive major,” Cairns said. “I’ve been met with a double-barrel of support from professors across ICS and GSF.”