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'Duke students are still showing up': Despite obstacles, students engage with Durham community

As the pandemic rages on, Duke students are scattered across the country. Amid the uncertainty, however, some students remain committed to volunteering with Durham-based organizations. 

When students were required to leave campus during the spring semester, sophomore Emily Gitlin was worried about maintaining her academic schedule while figuring out how to transition her volunteer work at the Durham’s Community Health Coalition into effective remote engagement, she said. 

Gitlin volunteers with CHC through GlobeMed, a national organization that has a chapter at Duke. Duke GlobeMed, which works with grassroots organizations that combat health disparities, partners with CHC to help provide health resources to Durham residents. 

In a normal year, Gitlin and other students report to churches, clinics or apartment buildings to help nurses and doctors perform medical tasks. This year, however, with many students not in the Durham area, GlobeMed has had to work with CHC to adopt virtual service strategies.

"We help CHC digitalize their health databases on COVID, mental health, and women's health. We also manage the organization's social media platforms and help them modernize their outreach," Gitlin said, describing new initiatives this semester.

GlobeMed members can also participate in two in-person projects. In the first project, students who tested negative for COVID-19 the previous day will go to the CHC office to help input COVID-19 testing data into CHC’s computer system. For the second opportunity, students will help CHC reorganize the resource room for future use.

Gitlin said that her experiences with GlobeMed and CHC have helped her gain real-world medical experience. 

Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed community service fraternity at Duke, has also shifted its engagement with Durham to virtual platforms.

Before the pandemic, APO members volunteered at local farms, hospitals and elementary schools. The organization is currently maintaining its relationship with Durham’s charter schools through virtual tutoring.

APO also came up with a creative way to boost members' morale: quick drop-in volunteer shifts.

"Our service chair organized some drop-in shifts for us to work with Durham local businesses or organizations in the Triangle area. Although these opportunities are completely remote, we are able to give back to the community during these unprecedented times," junior Tyler Jang said.  

Although many students have been able to continue engaging with Durham residents through remote community service, Jang reflected that this semester’s experiences don’t necessarily measure up to in-person volunteering. He said that he misses his favorite part of community service—interacting with his peers and local community members.

"The best part about APO is you get to volunteer with your friends and build a mutual relationship. Now that everything is online, I lose the social elements in these events," Jang said.

Nevertheless, both Gitlin and Jang said they are still motivated to continue with their community engagement activities and optimistic that what they are doing has the potential to make an impact. Gitlin said that she was inspired by hearing Durham residents' stories.

"Listening to stories about inadequate health access from Durham residents made me realize how privileged Duke students are. It makes me want to do more to give back to the community. I am encouraged by the fact that even though we could not have in-person events, Duke students are still showing up to help others,” Gitlin said.

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