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300 Durham middle schoolers visited Duke for a taste of the college experience

At lunchtime last Friday, the Bryan Center was filled not only with Duke students munching on McDonalds and cramming for midterms, but also with the garlicky smell of Papa John’s pizza and the excited chatter of hundreds of eighth graders who were about to eat it. 

This past Friday marked the 19th year of the Duke-Durham School Days program, an annual event that brings 300 Durham Public Schools eighth graders to campus for a day of activities designed to introduce them to the college experience. Organized by Duke’s Office of Durham and Community Affairs as part of its Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, the event is aimed at students who would be the first in their family to attend college.

The eighth graders were divided into thirty groups of ten, each with an individual itinerary that was facilitated by two Duke faculty or staff members and at least two Duke students, according to David Stein, senior educational and PepsiCo program coordinator in the Office of Durham and Community Affairs.

All groups visited a residence hall, attended an academic session run by a Duke faculty member in their lab or other place of study and listened to speakers who “put the day in context,” said Stein, who directs the School Days program. This year’s keynote speaker was senior Treniyyah Anderson, a first-generation student from Philadelphia, Pa. 

Stein noted that the program brings eighth graders on campus during the Fall semester to encourage them to consider college as an option before they register for high school classes in the spring.

“If they don’t wind up choosing a college-bound track, it’s almost impossible to switch later,” he said.

During lunch, The Chronicle talked to several eighth graders to find out what was their favorite part of the day. 

“All of it,” Cindy Torres, Perla Gonzales and Kelly Melcho said in unison. 

The girls, Shepard Magnet Middle School students, expressed excitement about the wide variety of language classes offered at Duke. They are all currently enrolled in Chinese classes at their middle school, but would like to learn Korean, French and Portuguese.

They all indicated that they want to attend college. Torres said she wants to “be a lawyer, to defend immigrants,” Gonzales is interested in pursuing art or history and Melchor would like to study theater. 

The girls added that, after today, they’re Duke fans. 

“We weren’t prepared, but we’ve been converted,” Torres said. 

Another group of students from Lowe’s Grove Magnet Middle School shared that they loved seeing the Duke Chapel.

Eighth grader Bashar Shahbin liked “sculptures on the wall going into the Chapel,” while another student in the group, Lynette Martin, said “this place reminds [her] of a city. It’s all so beautiful.”

Depending on their group assignment, students also visited the Edge, Technology Engagement Center, Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, Center for Multicultural Affairs and Research Greenhouse, among other important spots on campus. 

First-year Sophie Johnson volunteered to spend time playing drums in the Student Wellness Center with the visiting eighth graders. Johnson noted that the students in her group were “so spirited and interested,” adding that they were particularly excited to talk about Duke basketball. 

“It’s really important to encourage higher education and reach out to the Durham community,” she said. 

School Days was founded as a community outreach event, Stein said, but the original program looked very different. Visiting students simply sat in an auditorium, listening to various speakers and watching performances. 

Stein, who joined the program in its first year and has been directing it ever since, said at the time he didn’t think that the format “grabbed eighth graders,” so under his leadership the event has gone through a number of changes. 

The event was originally hosted in the spring, he noted, but it was moved to the fall in response to feedback from guidance counselors who said that it was important to give the students adequate time to process their experience before registering for high school courses. Additionally, students now attend academic sessions specifically tailored to their age group, whereas in the past they sat in on Duke classes.  

Stein shared that one of the most impactful parts of the program is the visits to residence halls. 

“That’s so completely foreign to them. They’ve never really thought about how there’s a whole life outside of class,” he said.  

Another important part of the day is “meeting and talking with current college students,” Stein added.

The program has not conducted formal evaluations to quantify its long-term outcomes due to the high cost of such assessments, but Stein said of collegiate School Days alumni, “we don’t have any data, but they keep popping up.” 

Stein indicated he has met some of these alumni as Duke students, and that others have gone on to receive the Morehead-Cain Scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

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