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Creatively connecting the community

Amid recent criticisms of students' lack of interaction with the world outside the Duke bubble, one group of students is using their artistic abilities to bond with the local community.

Three students-Eric Oberstein, Young-In Song and Howie Liu-only discovered their mutual desire to improve Durham's artistic development after being grouped together arbitrarily to work on a project. The program that resulted, ArtsConnect, was born as part of an enterprising leadership course taught by Tony Brown, professor of public policy studies and sociology.

Oberstein, the main founder of the program and a senior, said he first thought of ArtsConnect after reflecting on his own childhood experience.

"I have been a musician and an artist since elementary school and I think my personal experience with arts as a child was so instrumental in the development of who I am today," Oberstein said.

The other cofounders, Song and Liu, both sophomores, agreed with Oberstein's ideas about the importance of artistic development in a child's life.

The organization centers around weekly sessions during which a few of the 21 members teach children from the Durham community about various forms of art.

"Every week we bring three or four Duke students into the West End Community Center with a new lesson plan, whether it relates to music, visual arts, dance, drama, creative writing or anything that involves personal self-expression," Oberstein said.

The success of ArtsConnect is due to extensive planning that started in January. A meaningful alliance with the Duke-Durham Community Partnership has also contributed to its success. The Partnership has given ArtsConnect direct help and the ability to conquer financial and other problems.

"Our first purpose is providing the local elementary school kids with a fun and safe environment," Song said. "I feel that as the kids grow up, they will not only appreciate their opportunities with the arts but also their positive experiences with Duke students."

Oberstein stressed the benefits of ArtsConnect as a form of linking the school to the city, especially in light of recent critiques of town-gown relations.

"I think that this helps bridge the perceived gap between Duke and Durham. ArtsConnect is just our way of trying to be good neighbors, and I think we have gained some valuable friendships out of the experience beyond Duke's walls," Oberstein said.

The organization's motto, "Connecting Duke, Durham and the Arts," exemplifies members' commitment to a long-term goal.

"Our goal is to make ArtsConnect a sustainable program that will be around five, ten, 15 years from now," Oberstein said. "I think right now our efforts are focused on building the foundation for this year and the future after Howie, Young-In and I leave Duke."