Alumni Spotlight: Ariana Curtis '02

Monday, March 17, 2014

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Duke. My undergraduate years were amazing—transformative for me as a person as well as intellectually stimulating. But, after a certain number of years out of college, no one asks you about your undergraduate major. Although I have a doctorate in anthropology, I am excited for the opportunity to acknowledge that the foundation for my academic and professional success was created during my undergraduate years as an International Comparative Studies major (and a political science and history minor) at Duke University.

The ICS major provided the intellectual freedom to explore Latin America and North America through truly interdisciplinary lenses. I took classes in several disciplines including literature, sociology, history, anthropology, education, and political science. Understanding the theories and methods that define a discipline is important academically. ICS demanded this fundamental level of understanding for each of these disciplines, but also pushed a larger issue of connectivity. Since each student in the program is able to explore their areas of interest within geographic boundaries, it provides the independence to explore all facets of an area. My interests have always been in the nexus of education, identity, politics, and culture. My ICS training has served me beyond my Duke experience and enriched my research, my career, and my life.

I studied abroad as an undergraduate through the Duke in Cuba summer program at Casa de Las Americas in Havana. From this experience, in graduate school I was able to serve twice as a resident director of an undergraduate semester in Cuba. I loved talking to my students and my Cuban colleagues about Latin American literature, U.S. immigration, political systems, differential treatment, economic trends, music, sports and anything else that arose in conversation. My experiences abroad as well as my interest in global competency allowed me to travel to China with K-12 public school teachers from all over the U.S. with the NEA Foundation on their Pearson Foundation Global Learning Fellowship. I also had enriching research opportunities in D.C. and Louisiana before undertaking my own dissertation research. The year that I spent in Panama as a Fulbright Scholar researching my dissertation was one of my best experiences to date. I have a million stories that begin, “When I was in Panama....” But I will share only one overarching and relevant one. When I was in Panama, people were impressed by my deep knowledge of Panamanian political and economic history, but even more so by my familiarity with national and regional musical, literary, and artistic references. 

ICS really inspired in me a holistic way to analyze “culture” at various levels—international, national, and local to the quotidian. This thinking is represented in the lyrics of the famous Panamanian song “patria” by Ruben Blades.

He reminds us, 

“no memorices lecciones de dictaduras o encierros/ don’t memorize lesson of dictatorships or imprisonment

la patria es un sentimiento como mirada de viejo,/ homeland is a feeling like an old man’s gaze

sol de eterna primavera risa de hermanita nueva/ sun of endless springtime, laugh of a newborn sister

te contesto, hermanito: patria son tantas cosas bellas/ I answer, Little brother, homeland is so many beautiful things"

I joined the Smithsonian Institution in January 2013 as the first curator of Latino Studies at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. I often describe my job as “everything I never knew I always wanted!” My diverse training allows me to lead research and documentation about Latino urban experiences. 

I had a number of wonderful experiences as an undergraduate, but I can honestly say that my ICS major inspired in me an ability to connect, appreciate, and represent the many historical, political, social, musical, literary, economic, cultural, and political frameworks that influence the various forms human expression.