Duke days: She once received leukemia treatments from university hospital, now Samantha Washko is graduating magna cum laude
By Susan Shinn Turner for The Salisbury Post
DURHAM — When she was 5, Samantha Washko was treated for leukemia at Duke University Hospital. You might remember photos of her, dancing as she was hooked up to an IV. Diagnosed at age 4 with ALL — T-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia — Sam underwent an umbilical cord transplant the next year.
While at Duke Hospital, Sam could see the spires of Duke Chapel in the distance. She was convinced it was a castle, and told her parents, Ken and Nancy Washko, that she was going to live there someday.
Now 21, Sam on this day is graduating from Duke University, magna cum laude. On Thursday, she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa — just like her mother, and her mother’s mother.
She’s receiving a degree in computer science, with minors in mathematics and philosophy. In August, she’ll move to Seattle to go to work as a software engineer with a company called Microsoft. Maybe you’ve heard of it.
And yeah, she’s still dancing.
A couple of weeks before graduation, Sam sits down for lunch Elmo’s Diner on Ninth Street, a popular student hangout. She is so excited about everything that’s happened lately that she has to be continually reminded to eat the two giant pancakes on her plate. She eventually makes her way through the centers of both.
The week before, she’d participated in the Duke Swing Dance Club’s spring performance. The group chose the theme of “Stranger Swings,” a play on words of the popular Netflix series, “Stranger Things.”
“It’s been really fun,” Sam says of her four-year involvement in the club. “I grew up taking ballet. It’s a different form of dance — fun and social and silly sometimes. Ballet is individual and perfectionistic, and this is at the opposite side of the dance spectrum.”
The swing club, she says, has been her main thing at Duke, followed by her membership in Chi Omega sorority.
“The people I’ve met in Chi-O have been a great group of women,” she says.
Her big sister in the sorority was Courtney Crump, who now works for the Illinois State University.
“I still go to her with problems,” Sam says. “She’s been amazing. Everybody says, ‘My big is the best!’ but my big is actually the best.”
Sam remembers seeing Duke Chapel when she was young.
“When I finally went and toured, I found that the entire campus is beautiful,” she says. “It’s the most picturesque campus ever.”
Sam visited several Ivy League schools, but in the end, her choice was between Carolina and Duke.
“When I got the acceptance letter from Duke and went to the weekend for admitted students, I could see myself there,” she says. “Different people do well in different environments, but I definitely made the right choice. I’ve loved being at Duke. It doesn’t feel super tiny, but it is big enough that I can still meet new people. Every day, I’m bound to pass one or two people I know, between swing club and my sorority.”
Sam also lived in a Selective Living Group called the Roundtable. Her dorm was on Chapel Drive, just steps away from the chapel.
Of course, Duke’s price tag was much higher than Carolina’s.
“It was a bigger burden to put on my parents,” Sam says. “I applied to every scholarship out there, and wrote lots of essays. I’m definitely fortunate that they were able to cover what the scholarships didn’t.”
I’m so proud of the choices she’s made,” Nancy says. “She accepted so many challenges along the way. She is so motivated.”
Of her time at Duke, Sam says, “The people I’ve been around have been so passionate about everything. I’ve learned so much from my peers. There are people here with strong opinions and views, but they are willing to listen to both sides. Your professors encourage you to have your own opinion.”
Sam was particularly excited to take a seminar with Dr. Peter van Inwagen her last semester, a well-known name in the world of philosophy. He is the John Cardinal O’Hara Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and is Research Professor of Philosophy at Duke each spring.
Sam was in the seminar on metaphysics with graduate students and professors, and says the course was an intellectual challenge. Sam discovered that her minors, math and philosophy, are both logical in nature, and relished finding a logical error in one of van Inwagen’s papers.
“It was fun,” she says.
Sam also had fun in her summer internships. In 2015, she had an internship with Google, during which she worked on motion tracking for YouTube videos. In 2017, she had an internship with Microsoft, during which she added coding to a storage engine for a database.
“Some of the coding is older than I am,” she notes. “Writing part of a programming language is really a big deal to be an intern.”
As a result of that internship, she was invited to apply for a job with Microsoft, and had until October to make a decision.
“In the mean time, I applied a bunch of other places,” she says. “I loved it at Microsoft, but I wanted to see what else was available. So my entire fall semester was a bunch of interviews.”
Sam admits she did quite a bit of negotiating. She is well aware that women in the technology field generally get paid less than their male counterparts.
I was not gonna be a part of that!” she says, balling up a petite fist and raising it in defiance.
Greg Kuhn is not surprised about Sam’s job offer. Now an assistant principal at Mount Ulla Elementary, he taught Sam three of her four years at Salisbury High School. The word he uses over and over to describe her is “driven.”
“She was super motivated — a bit of a perfectionist,” he recalls. “Anything less than perfect would drive her nuts.”
She’s looking forward to living in Seattle. “I know it gets a bad rap for being rainy, but it’s just misty. The mountains are beautiful and I can see Mount Rainier in the distance.”
Between now and then, she’ll be spending time with her family and traveling. She will visit Courtney in New Zealand for a week.
Sam admits that throughout her school career, she put an enormous amount of pressure on herself to be successful.
“I got through cancer, and I could get through finals week,” she says. “I’ve been through worse.”
Her high-school math teacher agrees.
“She’s gotten over greater hurdles than math,” he says. “She’s gonna be all right.”
Sam says that her parents were great about letting her pursue what she wanted. Like a lot of cancer survivors, she initially thought about being a doctor. “And it’s the default kids get pushed toward when they’re good at STEM.”
But Sam took an AP online computer science course at Salisbury High School, and found she really liked it.
She participated in the Google Computer Science Summer Institute the summer before her freshman year, which led to the Google internship.
“Once I had the internship, I thought this could be a fun career,” Sam says. “I took computer science classes, did well, and enjoyed them.”
During her internship at Microsoft, Sam and another female intern joined an all-male team. It was definitely intimidating, she says. “At Google and at Microsoft, you’re around people who are at the top of their field. It was very intimidating to ask questions, but they were very nice. Some people were more approachable than others. The women from Duke who were at Microsoft all had dinner together with other female employees, and they encouraged us.”
Although Sam has a few health concerns she keeps an eye on, there’s nothing significant as a result of her illness or treatment. “I was incredibly fortunate about my quality of life. I had radiation to my brain, and I’m still able to graduate from Duke, magna cum laude! For someone who went thorough all that, I’m in really good shape.”
Sam remains close to her brother, Matt, a sophomore at Carolina, and yeah, they enjoy that whole Carolina-Duke rivalry thing.
“Duke won the national basketball championship my freshman year, and Carolina won his freshman year,” she says. “I did the whole tent city thing this year and went to the Duke-Carolina basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. We were packed in pretty tightly and I was smushed up against my friend. I’m 5 feet tall, so I’m not great in crowds. But it was worth it for the experience when we won.”
Besides her parents and brother, Sam’s maternal grandparents, Jack and Nanci LaMarre of Bakersville, will be on hand for her graduation today. Her paternal grandparents, Frank and Anne Washko of Charlotte, are unable to make the trip. But Sam plans to visit in all her regalia, and make it a special day for them, too.
Nancy says she can’t really imagine the joy she will feel today.
“When she graduated from high school, there was a part of me that was wistful,” she says. “I remembered this little girl, that little fairy princess, that little ballerina — and always with her nose in a book. I feel a lot different this time. Sam has worked hard to prepare herself for this amazing journey. I think she’s going to keep grabbing at life. When she was sick, we thought, are we ever gonna get out of ICU? This is not an ending. It’s a huge, huge beginning.”
And who knows? Sam may even dance across the stage to grab that diploma.