Like many others at Duke, I am a child of immigrants. My family came to the U.S. in the winter of 1999, a memorable year that taught me to adapt to American schools and to read in a language other than my native tongue. I did not understand why my family had left the comforts of home to build our lives from scratch.
My parents explained that possibilities are infinite in the U.S. and that I would have the creative freedom to chart my own path. I failed to comprehend such ideas, questioning why knowledge is indeed power. Fourteen years later, I stand as a living testament of the American Dream, grateful for the opportunities to engage with the world in meaningful ways through my educational journey thus far.
Many Duke students identify with this sentiment and seek to pass their knowledge forward through various education service groups on campus. As a member of Duke Partnership for Service’s executive board, I have personally witnessed how passionate student organizations make a lasting impact in the Durham community and beyond.
Education is one of several focuses of service at Duke and involves a wide array of activities ranging from tutoring to mentoring. During my involvement with dPS, I have had the privilege of speaking with students who possess a vision for addressing various educational needs in the community. I have been amazed not only by the passion these students bring to their ideas but also by the insights they possess regarding the needs they perceive in the world. One student leader sought to help sick children continue learning during their hospitalization. Another hoped to promote math in Durham through activity-based methods. Two groups of students wanted to share their expertise and interest in music through teaching Durham students how to play musical instruments.
I have been inspired by these and others who have paved the way for Duke students to become invested in furthering education. One of my most meaningful experiences at Duke was my research independent study through the School Research Partnership program. I worked with the Durham public schools to research evidence-based strategies for middle school scheduling. Though the project seemed daunting at first, I found the research process fascinating as I conversed with middle school principals to understand the challenges their schools face.
I discovered that while these schools strive to prepare their students for their future, they encounter practical constraints. When middle schools develop their bell schedule, they consider the balance between core class time (language arts, math, science and social studies) and elective class time, transportation/teacher costs, potential effects of scheduling choices on students’ performance on standardized tests and the political feasibility of rejecting the status quo. Education proved to be more than simply books and classrooms; it encompassed complex policy issues involving stakeholders beyond the immediate school setting.
Through my independent study, I developed a bell schedule plan for Durham public schools. I am fortunate to have had the chance to apply my education policy background and enthusiasm for service in a way that transformed how Durham education leaders view middle school scheduling. Furthermore, I became more hopeful at the potential that real, effective reform is possible through visionaries who always challenge schools to strive for more than what they have accomplished by applying knowledge about different facets of education.
Service in education comes in many forms. I came to understand that every element of service that Duke students are involved in composes an essential part of what allows the quality of education in the U.S. to improve. Certainly, there are individuals who will argue that education in this country is broken. However, whenever I think about all the student leaders I had the pleasure of meeting through my role in dPS—and whenever I think about the Durham community stakeholders who constantly ask, “What can be better?”—I grow more optimistic.
My personal story of a lifelong pursuit of an “ideal” education and commitment to service is not unique on Duke’s campus. I believe that together, our voices can foster a common vision toward innovative education policy that can help each student fulfill his or her potential. I can only imagine what can change if we were to work together to make what everyone considers impossible a reality.
Seung-Yen Park, Trinity ‘13, is chief of outreach for Duke Partnership for Service. This column is the first installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by dPS members addressing the importance of social action, as told through personal narratives. You can follow dPS on Twitter @dukePS.