Staying Close to Home

Duke students work on service-learning projects in Durham over the summer

Duke student Grant Smith, right with sickle cell patient Niyia Flemin

Like many college students, Amanda Dorsey has spent summers abroad. After her sophomore year, for example, she went to Tanzania, researching drug abuse among street children.


But this summer, the public policy major is staying closer to home -- right here in the Bull City. And, although the location may be less exotic, she expects the experience to be no less rich.


Dorsey will kickstart a program she co-founded called "Student U," which matches Triangle middle-schoolers with tutors and role models from area colleges.


"I really enjoy working with children," Dorsey says. "They're easily excitable and really growing and learning and developing. They're just learning something new every day."


Dorsey illustrates how, as Duke extends its reach internationally, it is maintaining strong ties locally. More than 75 percent of Duke students volunteer in the community at least once during their time at the university. In addition, a new initiative called DukeEngage will provide full funding and support to all undergraduates to do service-learning projects. This summer, 27 students will work in Durham with the initiative.


DukeEngage is supporting Dorsey's project, in which sixth-graders will take academic subjects such as reading and math and electives ranging from art to tae kwon do taught by students from Duke and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. (The program also is supported by the Robertson Fund, which funds collaborative efforts between Duke and UNC-CH.) Mentoring and tutoring will continue throughout the year.

A senior who lives in the Round Table living group, which is oriented around community service, Dorsey first started tutoring kids at local schools when she was a freshman. She and fellow classmates came up with the idea for Student U in Tony Brown's Enterprising Leadership class. She says she'll draw on skills she learned interviewing children in Tanzania.

"If you're honest with children and let them see that you're a person, they will trust you," Dorsey says. "They are willing to open up to you and want to be a part of whatever you're a part of."


Working with children also is on the summer agenda for Grant Smith, a pre-med psychology major at Duke. With funding from DukeEngage, the Focus Program, the Deans' Summer Research Fellowship and the Office of Service-Learning, Smith volunteers at Duke Children's Hospital to prepare kids with sickle cell disease for the transition from pediatric to adult care.


Smith first learned about pediatric care the summer after his freshman year, when he worked with a pediatrician in his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn..


"At first I was like, oh my gosh, I'm with a pediatrician!" Smith says. "I don't know if I'm going to like working with kids. And then I loved it. I had so much fun and I thought it was really a neat job to see kids grow up."

Returning to Duke as a sophomore, he began volunteering at Duke Children's Hospital.


"We would take up games and play Connect 4 and cards," he says. "I heard about people doing bigger research projects where you do something that goes beyond the daily needs of the hospital. I wanted to go and do something more."


Smith got in touch with Vivian Lewis, a specialist at the Duke Sickle Cell Clinic, who identified the need for a transition program for young patients. Children with sickle cell disease spend a lot of time at the clinic, and the routines and people are familiar. Moving to the adult clinic often was a shock, Lewis says.


"We had kids leaving from here crying," Lewis says.

She and Smith created a looseleaf notebook for patients from ages 13 to 18 to assist them with the transition.


"We call it taking charge," Smith says. The notebook teaches kids how to fill out their medical and pain control history, draft a letter to school administrators to make up for lost school days, schedule their own appointments and plan for family, college and career.

"He's a wonderful asset to our patients," says Dr. Courtney Thornburgh, the hospital's pediatric sickle cell director.


Smith receives independent study credit and is planning to write his senior honor's thesis on the program.


"I'm looking at this as more than just volunteering and more than just doing something that's hopefully going to change the hospital," he says. "I'm [also] looking at this through an academic lens."


Taking a break from student life and meeting people in the community is another reward, Smith says.


"We get to be more like citizens of Durham instead of just Duke students," Smith says. "I think it's important to get to know Durham a little bit better. Sometimes it can be hard; there's the ‘Duke bubble,' I guess. But I think it's fun to go outside of it and see what else is out there."


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