If Duke students are good at anything, it’s how to capitalize on an opportunity. We’re a society that is constantly looking for an “in” to the next big thing, that can stack up resume builders faster than some of our students can stack cups and that can build mountains of personal growth and achievements out of molehills of resources. These qualities of innovation and earnestness are what got us into Duke and continue to be fostered throughout our entire careers here. There is one major opportunity, however, that most of us are really missing the boat on: engaging with Durham.
For one reason or another, Duke’s location in North Carolina is often an influence on why we choose to come to our University in the first place (people flaunting tank tops in October—I’m looking at you). As soon as we step onto campus, however, we forget about all the opportunities our community has to offer, and we begin to limit our interactions with Durham to debating whether or not to use Merchants on Points for the night. We become locked in on what we could be doing on campus, and too often I hear students lamenting that they didn’t realize what they could get out of Durham until they were seniors, and then it was largely too late to make any meaningful connections. We rent its houses, we order its food and we even see its beaches once or twice a year, but for the most part, most of us enter and leave North Carolina without ever really understanding where we were.
Maybe our general lack of community connection isn’t just our fault, though. Duke has done a ton in the past few years to become a school that emphasizes civic engagement, and, for the most part, it has been widely successful. As a University, we’ve poured immense resources into encouraging students to go abroad and learn about the world around us through programs like Duke Engage and the Global Advising program, but there hasn’t nearly been as much emphasis on year-round local engagement. How, therefore, can we widen our horizons if we don’t even know what’s on the other side of our wall? Maybe to be a true “global citizen,” we have to learn how to be a local one first. Maybe to enact change on short-term summer and semester initiatives, we must first learn to enact change on the long-term in a community that we won’t have to leave.
We can find so many resources growing in our own backyard if we just take the time to dig a little. Heck, we’ll start noticing them if we just go outside. Yes, I know we have an endless array of service-learning courses and service clubs that are already making use of these resources and are achieving very tangible goals within the community. I greatly admire their efforts and I’m proud to have been a part of some of them. For may students though, these are often topical and sporadic projects that are an end rather than a means to more significantly explore social change and support academic interests. I say we dig deeper.
Now that we’ve built up our engagement capacities abroad, I say we build up our local initiatives consistently and persistently. I know it can be difficult for students to frequently get off campus, but I know it’s possible, and I know that what’s out there is worth the effort. Durham’s wide base of social services, for example, has allowed me to continue my Duke Engage research and work with Iraqi refugees in a way that never would I have been able to in most other cities. I also know of students working with local lawyers, playhouses and urban planners to build up their professional skills on a long-term basis, but the number of people taking advantage of these opportunities is so much smaller than it could be.
DSG is trying to change that. Although the Durham and regional affairs committee is always making efforts to bring little bits of Durham onto campus, our main goal is to get more of Duke into Durham. For example, we’ve been working these past two years on expanding yearlong internship opportunities with local governments and businesses to allow students to build professional connections year-round that aren’t just Duke-affiliated, without having to foot the bill for summer travel. We’re also expanding the Duke Discount program, fostering community between off campus students and their neighborhoods and working to mitigate bus issues to allow even students without cars to explore the city. This year, we’re working under an umbrella of “institutional advancement” and will be working throughout the year on creating mechanisms for students to interact with the community in more meaningful ways, on a more regular basis. Ultimately, we want to show you all of the amazing resources Durham can provide you academically, professionally and recreationally, and we want to make it as easy as possible for you to access them.
So, to prevent you from becoming one of those regrettable seniors who missed out on opportunities they can never get back, I challenge you to do two things. First, embrace your “Durhamite” self and recognize your role in the community. Second, make your existing interactions with the community more meaningful. Remember, this isn’t just the Durham community we’re learning from; it’s our Durham community. Instead of waiting for the next summer to start your next big endeavor, start right here in the community that we’re spending the most formative years of our lives in. Whether we realize it or not, we’re all apart of this special community for the better part of four years; we might as well make the most of it.
Kimberly Farmer is a Trinity sophomore and DSG senator for Durham and regional affairs. Her column is the ninth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by members of Duke Student Government. Send Kimmy a message on Twitter @DukeStudentGov.