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A Silver Lining of Pandemic: More Young Alums Returning to DA to Work and Volunteer
Story by Kathy McPherson 
Justin Warren

Justin Warren ’15 played four years of varsity tennis at the University of Connecticut, but “DA tennis was probably my fondest time on the tennis court.” So when Durham Academy tennis coach Sean Bilsborrow ’94 asked Warren to help coach the varsity boys team, Warren’s answer was an enthusiastic “Yes!”

Warren had moved back to North Carolina after graduating from UConn with a degree in economics and human rights, and DA tennis was barely underway when COVID-19 halted the season in spring 2020. 

“When COVID hit, we'd only gotten to play maybe one or two matches that season, but we were able to stay connected throughout the summer with tennis being one of the only safe things you could do for a while,” Warren said. “It was always nice to be on the court with the guys. It's nice now to really have a season, put in all that good effort, good hard work and see the guys have that opportunity that kind of got robbed from them last year.”

Warren is one of at least 25 alumni who have been helping out at DA as their lives, like those of DA students, parents, faculty and staff, have been upended by the pandemic.

Warren balances a job with Red Hat — he works on talent acquisition for the firm’s internship program, focusing on diversity, inclusion and recruiting events — while helping Bilsborrow coach the DA varsity boys team. Warren attended DA from Preschool through Upper School, and his sister, Michaela, is a DA fourth-grader. With those long-standing ties to the school, he said he wants “to stay connected with my DA community.”

“Seeing these alumni engage with their alma mater is gratifying on so many levels,” Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner said. “They are simultaneously helping and imitating their own life-changing teachers. They are building their skills in real-life roles that — this year more than ever — make an immense difference. 

“They are offering our students some useful bridges to the worlds that young adults inhabit, in college and beyond. I hope we will continue to expand this tradition of giving back and paying forward,” Ulku-Steiner added.

Another local DA alumna serving as an assistant coach this year is Emily Donaldson ’20, a standout debater at DA who qualified for the National Speech & Debate Association National Tournament three years in a row and finished in the top 12 in the country in the tournament’s Congressional (Senate) Debate event as a junior. 

“I knew after four years of debating at Durham Academy that I really wanted to have that experience of giving back and coming back and just seeing the whole team from a different perspective,” Donaldson said. 

As a first-year student at UNC-Chapel Hill looking to major in global international studies and double minor in French and sustainability studies, Donaldson said “I would definitely be missing out if I wasn't coaching [debate] this year. It's just a new way of realizing how cool the DA community is and how much quality time can be spent with students and academic or extracurricular activities.”

Donaldson said Crawford Leavoy, director of DA’s speech and debate program, is “a very good mentor to me, both personally and as a debate coach” and knew she would continue to learn from him while helping coach the team.

Will Norry

While Will Norry ’20 was never a student in DA’s Preschool — he came to the school as a ninth-grader — he has found a home there this year. Norry expected to start classes at Grinnell College in Iowa this fall, but decided to take a gap year when the pandemic meant he would experience most or all of his first year of college remotely from North Carolina. 

Norry is serving as an assistant with kindergarten and pre-k classes. “I generally watch the kids while they go out on recess, either on the Preschool playground or the Lower School playground. I give the teachers a break and if they are not going out to recess, I help out in the classroom doing various things.”

Norry said he has “known for a while that I really enjoy working around kids and also I think education is something I'm really interested in as well.” As an Upper School student at DA, he volunteered as a first-grade buddy and helped with Lower School PE classes. In addition, he has served as a camp counselor in Western North Carolina.

Isabel Gutierrez

The Lower School is familiar ground for Isabel Gutierrez ’17. Like Warren, she attended DA from pre-k through graduation and her mother, Michele Gutierrez, is the Lower School technology coordinator. That familiarity serves her well as she helps supervise students in the mornings at Lower School and in the afternoons is in charge of the first-grade cohort at Extended Day with her mom.

Working with young children doesn’t particularly align with Gutierrez’s college studies — she will graduate from N.C. Central University in May with a degree in environmental science with a concentration in geoscience, then will return to NCCU for her master’s in earth science — but said “it was a good opportunity because it's not far from where I go to school. I'm able to work and help at DA and also do my classes. I was able to balance it nicely.”

Director of Alumni Philanthropy and Engagement Tim McKenna said he’s grateful to Cavaliers who have pitched in to help at DA. “It is always great to have alumni on campus, but even more so this past year as we dealt with COVID,” he said. “The alumni who worked for us have played an integral part in the success of so many of our programs and offerings. I hope they have enjoyed being with our students as much as we have enjoyed having them here on campus.”

Other recent alumni who have been helping at DA include the following: 

Class of 2020

Adam Astrachan, debate; Alex Bayer, tennis; Davis Beischer, soccer, basketball; Isaiah Caldwell, soccer, basketball, intern with DA sports information; Bennett Dombcik, debate; Madeleine Genova, speech; Katie Hunter, basketball; Adriana Kim, volleyball; Jacob Palmer, debate

Class of 2019

Justin Cobb, Upper School Chinese; Morgan Doyle, soccer; Roberto Escobar, soccer; Dianne Kim, debate; Sheridan Kum, virtual guest speaker, Upper School Chinese; Henry Rogers, virtual guest speaker, Mathematics of Finance

Class of 2018

Alexander Brandt, tennis

Class of 2017

Loften Deprez, debate

Class of 2016

Rohan Patel, debate

Class of 2015

Derek Brown, debate

Class of 2014

Catherine Yang, debate

Class of 2013

Jasmine Williams, virtual guest speaker, AP Spanish Language and Culture