How to spell S-E-R-V-I-C-E

The career and passion of Sam Miglarese

Sam Miglarese..director of community development. photographed at the Kaboom Playground at the Community Family Life and Rec Center at Lyon Park..for the Guiding Principles poster series

To say that Sam Miglarese has had a multifaceted career would be to put things mildly. He has studied in Italy and England, worked as a professor and a pastor in more places than can be counted on two hands, and served Duke University for 15 years as an outreach coordinator.

Most recently, he concluded a three-year stint in a truly unusual vocation: Spelling Bee Pronouncer.

Despite how many places he’s gone and things he’s done, however, Miglarese’s career has had, at its core, a consistent theme of service to others.

Miglarese first came to Duke after 28 years in church ministry in South Carolina, which he mixed in with a lot of college teaching work in theology and philosophy on the side. In his current position as director of the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, Miglarese serves as a liaison between the university and six neighborhoods in the Durham community, working closely with academic departments as well as student engagement organizations.

From that position, Miglarese finds his way into all sorts of unexpected ventures. The spelling bee gig came about when the former pronouncer, Judith Ruderman, a visiting professor in the Duke English department and former vice provost, stepped down after two years. The job involves learning the correct pronunciations of all the words in the spelling bee in order to guide contestants along as they navigate the tricky word list.

“My favorite part is being an active participant,” Miglarese says. “I love words. All my life, reading has been a very active part of my weekly routine and I would say that knowing, learning new words, experiencing the power of words I think sort of motivated me even more to accept the challenge that was offered.”

The winner of Miglarese’s regional competition moves on to the Scripps National Spelling Bee—a huge honor for the students competing, but also a source of tremendous pressure. That’s where the biggest service aspect comes in for the adults facilitating.

“These youngsters put in so much time and effort and their parents are so emotionally connected to their child that I don’t want to be the reason why a child misspelled a word,” he says.

Miglarese also helps various organizations on campus establish service programs. The Swimming With the Blue Devils (SWBD) program, for example, brings minority and inner-city children from the Durham community, who might not have access to pools or swimming instruction, to campus. There, they get one-on-one lessons from the varsity swimmers of the Blue Devil swim team.

The idea for SWBD came from former Duke diver Lauren Gonzalez and was made a reality through a collaboration between Gonzalez and several organizations, including Miglarese’s. With the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, he gets the opportunity to help Duke community members’ service aspirations come to life.

And, as if that weren’t enough, he gets to recognize those community members who go above and beyond in those aspirations. Miglarese serves as the overall facilitator for the selection of winners of the Sullivan award at Duke. It’s a particularly fitting job for Miglarese, who won the award himself while working at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1978.

If ever there were an example of a Sullivan award well-deserved, Miglarese fits the bill. In the 36 years since, he’s shown again and again that service truly is at the core of what he’s all about.

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