Jacki Silar, Duke Senior Associate Director of Athletics and Senior Women’s Administrator, has recently retired after dedicating over forty years to Duke Athletics both as a coach and administrator. Jacki was instrumental in the establishment of the ACE program and helped lay the groundwork for the program to grow and become what it is today. The ACE team sat down with Jacki via Zoom to learn more about the process of building the ACE program, what ACE has meant to her over these past five years, and what her next steps are as she enters retirement.
Before ACE was a concrete program, what were your initial thoughts towards the idea of a civic engagement program for student-athletes?
I remember when Eric Mlyn, the inaugural director of DukeEngage, wanted to come and talk to our coaches at a Coaches Roundtable about a civic engagement program where the student-athletes would go away for eight weeks in the summer. I remember telling him, “Oh Eric, you’re not going to get anywhere with coaches if you start out with ‘eight weeks in the summer.’ As a former coach I know that.” I remember distinctly being in the media room in Cameron and him [Eric] coming in and talking about the eight-week program to the coaches, and the coaches looking at him and saying the if the program happened it would have to take place in Durham and for only three weeks. And so that question was always lingering in everyone’s mind – how we can make something like this work so our student-athletes can still participate in these valuable experiences like other students on campus? Here we are many years later doing something that works for our student-athletes. ACE is an abbreviated DukeEngage with the opportunity for our student-athletes to hang out with some Stanford folks. This is how I like to look at the program.
Speaking about the connection with Stanford, how did that connection come about and what role did you have in starting ACE?
The idea initially came from David Rubenstein who was on the Duke Board of Trustees. He wanted to find a way to bring the student-athletes from Stanford and Duke together. He had a conversation with Kevin White, our Duke Athletic Director, who knew the athletic director at Stanford because they had worked together at Notre Dame previously. Kevin then brought in Nina King and Mitch Moser from Duke Athletics to come up with an idea. The two of them talked and then came to me for input. I said that it was a great idea. Stanford is a great school, and it’s a great marriage between us [Duke]. They’re academically-oriented like we are. The only thing I didn’t know at that time is that they’re on quarters, not semesters…but we’ve been flexible.
Why is a program like ACE important for an athletic department to have? What does ACE mean to you personally?
I think it’s very important because most of our student-athletes can’t study abroad. It’s not possible being a varsity athlete at either of our institutions. ACE is a great combo of international experience and service. I think ACE is an excellent program. While I was at Duke, I had the privilege of leading our leadership and student-athlete development programs. I think ACE just enhances the work we do at Duke regarding leadership skills, teamwork, and community outreach and service. It also really helps our coaches with their programs. ACE participants come back more aware.
Also, personally, I had the opportunity to visit India in 2018 with the ACE program which was very special.
What would you say to an administrator or coach who is on the fence about letting a student-athlete participate in ACE or a program like ACE?
Less is more when you talk to a coach or an administrator. What I would simply say to them is that there is no downside to this program. Absolutely no downside. Your student-athlete will return fully engaged with added leadership and teamwork skills. They will have such a wider base than they’ve ever had before. Those are my simple words and they always have been – there’s absolutely no downside.
Go talk to one of the coaches who have had student-athletes go to these programs. Ask what they’ve seen when student-athletes return to their programs.
From the last 5 years, what’s your favorite ACE related experience? How have you seen ACE change as a program over the past five years of your involvement?
My favorite experience with ACE as a whole has been the interview process. You get the opportunity to spend 20-30 minutes with every student-athlete that applies. Because we have the best and brightest student-athletes in the country, the conversations are so engaging. It’s just so interesting to sit there and learn about their families, where they’re coming from, why they want to do ACE. By far, that week that Emily (ACE Program Director) and I spend up in the K-Center classroom is my favorite. We have a great time. I get to know our student-athletes a little bit better. Going to India was pretty special, too (laugh), but when I reflect on the five years overall, it has to be the interview process.
I always tell Emily, “Do I have to ask these questions?” because to me it’s all about fit. We know that they’re capable otherwise they wouldn’t be Duke students and they wouldn’t be applying. So they have a desire, they’re capable, that’s why it’s about fit. So, I liked to ask off the grid questions. Tell me what cereal you would be. Describe yourself in one word and what would that word be. I love people who sit there and reflect, you can see the wheels turning. They’re thinking, “It could be this word, or this word… can it be hyphenated? No, it can’t be hyphenated.” A lot of people take a lot of time, which I appreciate.
Where I’ve seen ACE change the most is in the growth. Especially the applications. Our first year we had just barely enough to cover the four program locations. We didn’t have time to grow. Anytime something new is implemented, it takes a while for people to get excited about it. So even with Emily, Leslie (Duke Athletics), and me going around to coaches and talking about it [ACE], there was nobody with experience with it so nobody could speak to it. But then, as soon as we had the first class of ACE alums come back from their programs, they talked to their teammates and coaches about their experiences which helped the program become more real.
The knowledge and awareness of the program for coaches, staff, and students has grown. Programming with the ACE Ambassadors has grown. And of course, we have our strategic plan that is now in place. I think you have to build a strong foundation and build up from that. The first five years was building that strong foundation. Now, we have the strategic plan that has been approved and hopefully we’ll be able to implement.
What’s your hope for the future of the program and the next five years of ACE?
My hope is that first we resume the programs abroad next summer, and then continue to implement the strategic plan. Expanding the roster, adding a fifth program site, allowing more student-athletes participate. Expanding what’s done during pre-departure and after the experience, expanding resources available to student-athletes, and then expanding opportunities for ACE alums. All those things we worked really hard on to put in the strategic plan. We talked over what was important and when to implement them over a four-year period. I think they’re really sound ways to expand ACE given the already strong foundation.
What are your retirement plans? What’s the first place you want to visit?
My retirement plans have changed a wee bit with the pandemic. One thing I’ve enjoyed so far is not having a schedule. I still do a lot of volunteer work with our agility dogs. We do Paws for Exams (with Duke Athletics), and we’ll continue to do that but we never got the chance to volunteer in the hospital before and bring the dogs to the different facilities there. I’m still a Duke college advisor, just for this year, because I didn’t want my first-years who are now sophomores to get someone new especially through this pandemic. This will be my last year of college advising, I’ve been doing it about 20 years. I love teaching, a coach is a teacher. I hope I can get back into teaching my PE class at Duke in the spring. We’ll see what happens with that. My other plan is to visit family. I have family in Florida, Montana, and other different areas. I have gone to see my mother in Florida which was nice, in fact I’m leaving on Saturday to go see her again. She just turned 91!
I have been very blessed and grateful being at Duke for 41 years. I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel a lot of places and go with a lot of teams both abroad and domestically. I’ve been to every state in the United States. So, when we get to the time where I feel comfortable getting back on an airplane, one of the first places I want to visit is Greece. I’ve always wanted to visit, and I don’t know why. I also want to go on a safari. Those are two things that are still on my bucket list, and if I don’t get to do them, it’s not the end of the world. Another place I really want to go is Sedona, Arizona. It’s a very spiritual place, and I was supposed to go there about 10 years ago and my plans fell through, so I know that’s one place I will be going.