Alumni Spotlight: Isham Randolph '00

Monday, March 21, 2016
Alumni Spotlight: Isham Randolph '00

While I didn’t know what International Comparative Studies (then called Comparative Area Studies) was prior to stepping foot on Duke’s campus, it was clear very early on that it was the perfect major for me. Furthermore, the tools I developed through ICS have been crucial in my career as a documentary filmmaker. 

I arrived at Duke coming off a leap year living, working, and studying Spanish in Argentina. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in but I had a keen interest in the relationship between the United States and Latin America. ICS allowed me to delve into that relationship by way of courses in Spanish, Political Science, Literature, and History, among others, while providing a global context through capstone courses like Global Human Geography and Comparative Approaches to Global Issues. Even if my papers continued to skew toward Latin America (my final paper in the Comparative Approaches class was on Italian immigration to Argentina and the US at the turn of the 19th century), I appreciated the program’s insistence that we look beyond our regions of focus in order to gain a greater, global, perspective. In fact, Martin Lewis’ emphasis on the roots of language in the Global Human Geography course has helped me connect the linguistic dots on numerous occasions while working on National Geographic documentaries.

ICS has always put a premium on not only studying abroad but also doing it in a serious manner. I took that to heart, studying at a small research institution called CIDE in Mexico City, taking courses with CIDE students (unlike many other study abroad programs where you are placed in classes for foreigners) on Mexican history and international relations and gaining new insight and perspective on the shared history between Mexico and the US. The study abroad program — which allowed exchanges between a handful of colleges and universities in the US (Duke and Northwestern), Canada (McGill in Toronto and the University of Montreal) and Mexico (CIDE and UDLAP in Puebla) — had been created during a unique post-NAFTA moment and unfortunately doesn’t seem to exist anymore.   

Finally, as I moved toward graduation, the department’s course flexibility gave me the space to pursue a certificate in the Program in Film and Video (now the Program in Arts of the Moving Image), opening my eyes to the power of documentary to explore the same cultural and historical questions that had already guided my course work. It was then that I felt that I had the right medium for me for pursuing these cultural and historical questions. 

After graduation, this very ICS-oriented skillset plus my newfound interest in documentary led to a Benenson Award in the Arts to document the lives of American Expatriates in Mexico — asking the question, when there are so many people trying to reach the United States, why do people leave?  Building off of the footage that I had captured while on my Benenson award, a Fulbright Scholarship to further pursue the project then followed. During the Fulbright, I spent most of my time in retirement communities in Mexico, as it seems that most Americans head to Mexico to fulfill what could be considered the final chapter of the American Dream, to retire comfortably.

Now I work as a freelance documentary producer for such groups as National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian Channel and the Rockefeller Foundation. The job requires the tools to be able to jump between a wide range of topics in a wide range of locations around the world — from US-Mexico border issues to exploring the changing dynamics of cities in places like Accra, Ghana and Bangkok, Thailand — tools I honed by way of the opportunities afforded to me through a degree in Comparative Area Studies (now ICS).

Here are some links to recent or pertinent projects:

Informal City Dialogue, Rockefeller Foundation: Bangkok:

Informal City Dialogue, Rockefeller Foundation: Accra:

What Would You March For? Trust for the National Mall/National Geographic Studios: