Skip to content

When Judy Zhu ’17 graduated from Duke, she moved to Montreal, where she had a nice place to live and a job she liked. Yet remembering that time, she said, “It was so scary. I had no idea what I was doing.”

judy zhu headshot

Speaking with her friends about their post-graduation experiences, Zhu realized that regardless of how things appeared, most recent grads were dealing with the same challenges she was—namely loneliness, uncertainty, and self-doubt. “That’s when I realized we need to destigmatize those feelings,” Zhu said. “It’s a myth that at some point in our life we’re just supposed to know the answers.”

While at Duke, Zhu had developed her entrepreneurship skillset through programs and resources including I&E courses, Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs, the Innovation Co-Lab, and DUhatch. She’d founded Walla, an app that facilitated spontaneous hangouts among peers, which she sold following graduation.

Now Zhu felt the entrepreneurial itch again, calling her to address the problems facing recent graduates like herself. She partnered with Michelle Nie, a colleague she’d met in the education consultancy space, and reached out to her connections in Duke Clinical Psychology from her work on Walla.

They put her in touch with Savannah Erwin, a fifth-year Clinical Psychology PhD student whose initial focus on eating disorders evolved to explore how peer relationships can impact mental health issues. Erwin had previously collaborated on DukeLine—an anonymous support and referral textline by Duke students, for Duke students—and she was eager to lend her expertise to Zhu’s new project.

“We worked to create a space for these young alums to connect with their peers in their same life stage and situation, helping to foster that developmentally appropriate support network for these young people,” Erwin said.

The result was Life Pods: After young alums complete an intake survey with their post-grad plans, city, and interests, an algorithm groups them into pods of five. Together they complete a 6-month peer mentorship program that builds their relationships and supports them in transitioning into adulthood. (Interested alums can complete the form here.)

The curriculum—Influenced by the Stanford Design Program and Dr. Alison McWilliams at Wake Forest and overseen by advisor Grace Shin, EdM at Harvard University—centers on the themes of work, health, love and play. Pods explore topics like getting settled in a new city, making new friends and keeping up with old ones, mental health routines, and more.

Life Pods logo

Pods are managed by a program coach and led by a peer leader, who gets training from the Clinical Psychology team at Duke Health led by Erwin and vetted by Dr. Scott Swartzwelder. The program also has a diversity and inclusion lens vetted by Equity by Design consultant David Clifford.

The Life Pods team ran a small pilot with Duke’s Class of 2019 that affirmed the program’s value. “We heard from participants that they really looked forward to their Sunday evening chats and it set them up for success in the coming week,” Zhu said.

The next step will be piloting the program again at Duke—along with Johns Hopkins University, Tulane University, and the University of Rochester—for alumni who graduated in 2020 and 2021. Duke Alumni Engagement and Development and the Career Center are co-sponsoring the pilot to lend additional support to young alums beginning their post-college lives amid the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a hard world to get their footing in,” Zhu said. “I hope they feel they’re not alone and we have their back, their peers have their back, and they’ll be okay eventually.”

Reflecting on how the Duke community has supported Life Pods, Zhu and Erwin spoke effusively about the administrators and faculty members who contributed their expertise and thought partnership, including Gary Bennett (Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education), Greg Victory (Assistant Vice President, Student Affairs), Susan Gordon and Gerald Harris (both of Duke Alumni Engagement and Development), and many others.

“This whole world of startups is foreign to me, and I feel very fortunate to be involved and able to see my work come to fruition,” Erwin said. “It’s been inspiring to see these incredibly passionate professionals working with alums to see them become the full humans we know they can be.”

“In my conversations at I&E I was pushed beyond what I imagined my life could be,” Zhu said. “At Duke we’re encouraged to test what we know to be true and to explore whatever calls us. For me that’s creating community for people so we can feel more validated in our lives, acknowledge that we’re doing our best, and know we are going to be okay.”