Blue Devil of the Week: Counselor by Day, Theater by Night

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Last name: Dr. Jules Odendahl-James

Position: Director of Academic Engagement, Arts & Humanities

Years at Duke: 17

What she does at Duke: Dr. Jules Odendahl-James helps undergraduate students maximize their on-campus experience, which includes mentoring students from their first days on campus through graduation.

As Director of Academic Engagement, Arts, and Humanities since 2014, she guides undergraduate students through the questions that arise while studying in 19 different departments and to answers that will take them beyond their time at Duke. These important questions include which courses to take, whether to drop or add a major or minor, and the best ways to connect with research, consider careers, and find funding opportunities.

“When a student is sitting in front of me, I just focus on them,” Odendahl-James said. “It’s not about trying to take them down particular paths. It’s about helping them understand what they want to do.

Odendahl-James, affectionately known as “Dr. OJ” to students, has also taught in the Thompson Writing Program and served as Resident Playwright and Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Theater Studies. During the summers, she serves as Co-Director of the History+ Program. .

Her success as a student advocate lies in the meaningful relationships that continue after she leaves college.

“Generously they keep in touch with me,” she said. “And they’re there when I need an example of different choices. If I send an email they will come back and answer the other student’s question and that is the greatest giveaway of all.

Very first job: The summer after his sophomore year of high school, Odendahl-James worked at the Hot Springs Wax Museum in Hot Springs, Arkansas, an area attraction that included a large Last Supper scene.

“I dusted wax figures, served ice cream and worked in the gift shop,” she said. “I don’t even know how I found it as a place to work, but it’s a nice little nugget of weird stuff. The work was very basic, but the context was really wild.

What she likes about Duke: As a lifelong Southerner, Odendahl-James said she has experienced how institutions create environments that can force queer people like her to navigate their work and scholarship at the margins.

When she came to work at Duke in 2005 with her partner of 10 years and a newborn baby, she found a welcoming institution that she says helped her “thrive”.Jules Odendahl-James performs a scene from The Bacchantes at the Nasher Museum of Art in 2016. Photo courtesy of Jules Odendahl-James.

“At Duke, there are structural and institutional recognitions of the identities of the people who support them,” Odendahl-James said. “I came to Duke as a new parent, and there was an immediate structure to support us and my partner had access to that as well.”

When not at work, she enjoys: With a doctorate in performance studies, Odendahl-James’ free time outside of work involves theatre, an exciting and challenging field.

She has worked as a professional theater artist in the Triangle since 1997 and co-founded the Bulldog Ensemble Theater in Durham. She works with local playwrights on their projects and recently directed a new play for Playmakers Repertory Company which was recorded and broadcast on demand last year.Jules Odendahl-James is masked and on set of the show she directed at the Playmakers' Repertory Company in January 2021. Photo courtesy of Jules Odendahl-James.

“It’s never the same thing twice,” Odendahl-James said. “I’ve only staged the same play twice in my career. I’m always happy to be working on something else, like a very happy jack-of-all-trades.

Something unique in his workspace: Among the nearly bare doors that line the hallways of the Duke Academic Advising Center, Odendahl-James’ colorful door opens into an eclectic desk filled with objects that speak to his personality.

They include bumper stickers, framed theater posters, an ice-cold Diet Coke on her desk, and drawings by her child who said the space gave off “Instagram academic goth vibes. But among many tchotchkes, one element stands out in particular for Odendahl-James.

On a shelf is a Barbie Dana Scully Autopsy dressed in scrubs to perform autopsies, an unconventional gift Odendahl-James gave herself once she finished her thesis in graduate school.Jules Odendahl-James shows off the Dana Scully Barbie that sits above her desk in her office.  Photo taken by Jack Frederick.

The doll represents her love for the X-Files and actor Gillian Anderson who plays the character, Dana Scully, an FBI agent. The show was a show she watched frequently after long days at university, and a reminder of her thesis topic: media representations of women’s violence.

“I never took it out of the box, and I don’t know if I would ever sell it, but it’s kind of my pride and joy,” Odendahl-James said.

Is there a colleague at Duke who has intriguing work or who goes above and beyond to make a difference? Nominate that person for the Blue Devil of the Week.

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