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The Citizenship Lab: A neighborhood of curious people

I put my car in park, quickly grabbed my stuff and started speed walking. I was late for my Ethics 215 class. Huffing and puffing, I made it to class on time. I sat down, and while waiting for other people to come, Sara Kate started asking us about our day. A few minutes later, everyone was here, and we got our first task: brainstorm future events for the class. 

Ideas like having a movie night or having a talk with a professor were put on the board. Following the feedback we got last week from our peer friends*, we eventually decided on a sports day. With the first task done, we proceeded to start our weekly calls with these peer friends.

Through our conversation, we bonded on two important points: midterm season is the worst, and professors need to give less work. Through our academic struggle, we got to know our peer friends' passions and dreams, and our peer friends got to know the same about us. In other words, we developed a rapport with our peer friends. Through this rapport bloomed a relationship. A Relationship that characterizes Ethics 215, better known as the Citizenship Lab.

The job of Citizenship Lab is better described by Dr. William Tobin, the lab’s director:

“If a great research university like Duke is trying to teach methods and processes -- experimentation, innovation, interpretation, policy making and execution, and so on, the Lab is a place where students and community members can try to do these things in the world together, beginning with the wildly impossible, but rewarding of work of relationship building.”

Through those weekly calls and zoom meetings, I was beginning to tread on the onerous path of relationship building. Luckily for me, sports day presents an opportunity for me to gain experience that would turn my crawl to a walk.

10 days later, the long awaited day has arrived. However, Zeus had other plans for us. Since it was raining, we decided to have a board and card game day. Sitting under the tents and waiting for the peer friends to arrive, I decided to consult Sara Kate about her experience in the Citizenship Lab.

Tell me more about your background.

My name is Sara Kate Baudhuin, I go by SK though and I’m a senior at Duke doing a Program II major. I’ve been involved with the lab since my first semester as a first year so this is my seventh semester here. 

How did you get started with the Lab?

I did the Global Leadership and Ethics Focus program through Kenan when I was a first year, and as part of that, I took Suzanne Shanahan's Refugees, Rights, and Resettlement course. One component of that course was being a part of the Tuesday night program which--at that time was a three branch program with different ages. Before we joined, we got to learn a little bit about all three and I chose to do the Citizenship Lab because I was really, really interested in working with people who are similar ages to me because we could engage as peers and kind of just think through life together. So that's why I was drawn to specifically the high school age group. It was through that class that I started working with the Citizenship Lab and then even after that class was over, I stayed involved with the lab and it’s just been one of the most important things at Duke for me so far.

What is your most memorable memory from the Citizenship Lab?

A couple come to mind. One of them, of course, is something that I think is probably the most meaningful part for almost everybody: doing home visits. So for my partner, we had worked together for a long time, and I knew all about his family and his sister. Getting to then go to their house, hang out with them, have dinner, and spend time with them--meeting the people who I had heard so much about was so wonderful. 

I think another moment for me that was really, really powerful happened this past year. My partner, who’s two years younger than me in school, is now at UNC Charlotte. I'm from Charlotte and so last year, I was able to go visit him at his residence hall and we were able to trade snacks and gifts and just hang out. It was just a really wonderful moment to get to meet him on his college campus that was in my city, but was in the context of this new space that he had just totally made his own, despite not having any connection to Charlotte beforehand. 

So though I’ve been in Charlotte virtually my whole life, it felt like he was teaching me about a new space that I didn't know yet because it was totally his and that was just so, so wonderful. We'd always worked together in Durham, which was his place of residence, and then to switch it and have him as a college student in my hometown was a very cool full circle type of moment. 

What expectations should future members of the Lab have?

I would say it's just really important to take ownership of your role here and to have stakes in the process. One thing I often come back to is something that Bill said my fall semester when I was a first year at the lab. As we were thinking about our engagement with the group, he said, “let your partners take up space in your head.” In the same way that you would allow family members or friends here at school with you to occupy your passing thoughts, that's the kind of investment and buy-in and ownership that I think is really powerful for members of the lab to have. So thinking about, What do I want to be different? What do I hope for my partner? What can I do that may be able to help in some way? What am I noticing behind the scenes that we might be able to think through more? What are the puzzles in front of us? 

I think that advice was some of the best advice and I think letting that space in your head be taken up--that opens up the opportunity for a lot of really cool things to happen.

If you can describe the Citizenship Lab in one sentence, what would that sentence be?

I've heard Bill describe the lab as a neighborhood, and I really like that framing of who we are. I would say the Citizenship Lab is a neighborhood of curious people who are excited to puzzle through life together.


With our conversation winding down, I started to look around and realized that most of the peer friends were already here. So I started introducing myself to the peer friends I haven’t met already. After introductions, it was time for the card games to start. We first played blackjack, in which I actually won a few times. Then we played B.S. with one and a half deck, which was confusing for everyone. Nonetheless, it was a fun experience. 

After those two games, I found myself sitting across Faustin, waiting for a game of spoon to end (we were both out at this point). So I struck up a conversation with Faustin, one of the peer friends:

Can you tell me more about your background?

Yeah. My name is Faustin, I am 20 years old and I go to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. I'm a junior in college, majoring in chemical engineering. I'm originally from Rhonda, but I live in Durham.

How many years have you been with the Citizenship Lab? .

I think I've been with the Citizenship Lab for about five years now.

So you started in high school?

Yeah, I started in high school.

What do you think is the biggest difference between the high school and college level section of the Citizenship Lab?

Yeah, I think it's pretty different. In high school, most kids are immature. They pretty much don't, don't like, don't care about the things that they're doing with their partners a lot, you know? But in college I feel like because we are both college students, it makes a lot of sense for me to hear from someone who was doing the same thing that I'm doing, which is a lot better than it was at high school. But on both ends, it's very helpful.

What is your most memorable memory from the Citizenship Lab?

I think the greatest memory is when we were working on the bus stop project.(A several year policy and advocacy project that led to increased bus stop seating in Durham, especially near the biggest apartment complexes where refugee families were resettled.) That's how I got to create a deep bond with my partner. We became like brothers since then, you know,, since we have known each other since he was a freshman. So from the bus stop project, we created a good bond. So it was a good memory.

What do you think is the biggest impact of the Citizenship Lab?

It's like in my perspective, the way I look at it, it motivated me to do the same thing that they were doing. I didn't believe that I could just go to college, but seeing people who are smarter than I was, made me want to become like them. Do what they were doing just to see if I can try to get on their level in different ways and just to make my life better in different ways.

If you can describe the Citizenship Lab in one sentence, what would that sentence be?

That's a good question, actually. I'll say, what's the word I'm looking for? But I'll say that it’s hard to put in one sentence or one word. So I don't know if it makes sense, just being helpful to those who need a bit of help themselves, you know, the things that they don't have a great perspective or great knowledge.


That's when we were interrupted by Sara Kate, asking if we wanted to join the next game of spoons. We, of course, kindly obliged and joined the game. A few games and conversations later, it was time for board and card game day to end. So I said goodbye to all the peer friends and helped pack up the games.

Through this day of interactions with both the peer friends and other Duke students, I learned that the Citizenship Lab is neither a day or a semester of service, but rather a semester of making bonds that could last beyond college.  So if you want to be part of some quality relationship building that serves your peers but also yourself, just sign up for the Citizenship Lab for next semester.

*Peer friends--term used to refer to DPS or college students

Abdel Shehata is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.

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