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Learning Curve

How a Bentley Professor Helped Alex Duarte ’19 Go From Disliking School to a PhD

Kristen Walsh

Growing up, Alex Duarte ˊ19 didn’t like school and considered going into the military. But several things changed his plans: His mother wanted him to attend college first; he was diagnosed and treated for an attention disorder; and once in college, he took a public policy course with Bentley Associate Professor Rob DeLeo. And now, he is heading from Bentley into one of the top social policy doctoral programs in the country at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.

“My mom was the first person in her family to go to college so she pushed education super hard on me and my sister,” Duarte recalls. “When I got into a school as good as Bentley, I took that opportunity because I figured, if I’m going to school I might as well go to the best one I can.”

At first, Duarte never imagined he would enjoy learning so much that he would apply directly into a doctoral program after earning a dual bachelor’s degree in public policy and business studies — something almost unheard of for an undergraduate, according to DeLeo. He admits that he had always struggled in school, connecting with only a handful of teachers who “got him.” One of the first was DeLeo, and Duarte vividly remembers the first course he took with him during sophomore year: GLS 230 Politics and Public Policy.

“Even though Rob is more of a political scientist, he wasn’t afraid to blur the lines between public policy and political science,” Duarte says. “When we were discussing a theory during class, I would often connect it to my interest in substance use disorder and healthcare policy.”

Interested in a Career Helping Others?

When the professor posed a question, it was Duarte who would raise his hand to jump into the discussion. Alex demonstrated an interest in policy and politics pretty quickly,” DeLeo recalls. “The moment I started to offer him additional reading and times during office hours, he grew as a scholar and as a student.”

DeLeo suggested they team up for a directed study, which involves research on a specific topic under the guidance of a faculty member. The pair have since done two. Their most recent research, exploring the differences in policies that address illegal drugs and prescription drugs, was presented at the 2019 meeting of the International Public Policy Association in Montreal. 

And thanks in part to his credit-earning directed studies, Duarte ended up graduating from Bentley a semester early. With encouragement from DeLeo, he applied to and was accepted with full funding into Brandeis’ prestigious doctoral program in social policy.

“Rob extended his hand first and took a chance on me, offering the directed study,” Duarte says. “The fact that he had so much confidence in me — even when I may not have seen my own potential — helped me get to where I am today.”

‘Policy affects our everyday life’

Although Duarte was undiagnosed for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder until his sophomore year of college, he never lacked intellectual curiosity. For example, by visiting relatives in the Rhode Island city of Central Falls, he developed an interest in the factors underlying substance use.

“Growing up I spent a lot of time in my cousins’ neighborhood, where illegal drugs were fairly prominent,” Duarte says. “I started to become aware of the nuances of how certain communities and demographics are underprivileged, and I wanted to know why.”

So he started watching documentaries and reading all he could about drug culture and policy. Years later, sitting in DeLeo’s course, Duarte says he started to realize “that policy really affects our everyday life.”

It was DeLeo’s teaching style that struck a chord with Duarte. “Rob pushed me to do things that I was interested in rather than sticking to a script or following a set pattern.”

DeLeo says he simply provided the tools and resources for Duarte to use the intellectual curiosity he already had. “As a professor my teaching model is based on empowerment. In the public policy course, for example, my goal is to help students understand they are able to influence, study and engage the legislative process.” 

For Duarte, it worked. “My research allows me to create a piece of knowledge that can help make the world a better place and inform people.”

Now Duarte – who once disliked learning so much that he considered skipping college -- is considering becoming a college professor after earning his PhD. “I would love to have the opportunity to be someone else’s ‘Professor DeLeo,’” he says, “to see the potential in a student who may not see it themselves and help bring out the best in them to better the community and the world.”

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