PUBLISHED:July 28, 2009

Laura Gleason JD/MA '12

A strong belief in civic responsibility and commitment to community service led Laura Gleason ’12 to join the Peace Corps following her graduation from Emory University in 2007. Her two-year assignment took her to the tiny country of Moldova, a former Soviet republic and fledgling democracy, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine.

While Gleason’s primary responsibility was to teach English to fifth through 12th-graders, she also worked with a local nonprofit, starting a small ceramics business to support its efforts to promote transparency in elections, business, and the educational system, and to provide a much-needed creative outlet in towns of Șoldănești and Rezina.

“We [recruited] a couple of ceramics masters and set up workshops and classes for them to teach to other members of the community,” she says. “Everyone who was involved in the ceramics classes was required to take business seminars that the nonprofit put on and to give back part of their individual business proceeds. It was exciting to see young people get excited and passionate about rejecting corruption — which is so deep-seated in their society — and embracing transparency.”

Gleason says that by establishing personal relationships with individuals in the community she gained a great deal of insight into the country’s struggles. “Moldova is so close to Western Europe that they get a lot of influences from there and have exposure to this wealthy way of life that they can’t have themselves,” she says. “And, as a former Soviet Republic, it’s struggled through a lot of political conflicts.”

As her time with the Peace Corps neared its end, Gleason began to think about what she wanted to do next. “I decided it was important to me to work and interact with some of the things that are really important to people,” she says. An undergraduate religion and classics major, she decided to pursue a dual-degree at Duke Law: a master’s degree in religion along with a JD. Gleason began her studies in June with 54 others in Duke’s summer-start program.

“Some people see religion and law as antithetical, but for me they are two things that shape and define how people live and think,” she says. “I think I want to focus more on the theoretical issues of religion and see how these relate to the problems it is facing now — particularly in its interactions with law. I am really interested in developing countries and how religion and law interact with one another.

“In America, we have a separation of church and state, but that’s not necessarily how other countries are developing. I think it’s interesting to see the ethical issues that come into play there and how they shape different communities. I believe these issues further the study of law and religion not only internationally, but also domestically.”

The ability to pursue a dual degree and an institutional commitment to public service were the top factors that led Gleason to Duke. “I think it’s fantastic that you can pursue your traditional legal degree and also have an opportunity to go after additional intellectual interests,” she says, noting that she is particularly looking forward to taking classes in Islamic and Jewish law.

She also adds that she has found the summer start program to be quite advantageous. “Having this time to focus on two classes — taking it step by step — is really worthwhile,” she says. “It’s also been beneficial to my thought process to have a mix of people. We are really geographically diverse and with that comes intellectual diversity that makes for interesting conversations and interactions both through the work we are doing in class and our social scene.”

Gleason and her classmates have been exploring their new city together, as well. “Professor [Tom] Metzloff has been getting us settled into Durham, giving us the run-down of the city and telling us about all of these events that are going on,” she says.

“I’m a big baseball fan, so I’ve been to a couple of [Durham] Bulls games. A group of summer starters has been going to the concerts in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens every week, too.

“I love Durham,” she continues. “I’m from Chicago — right downtown Chicago — so it’s definitely a little bit different for me. But I think it’s fantastic that I get to be outside so much and Durham has a lot more character than I was anticipating.”