Citizenship Lab Students Stoked for Summer Internships

“I’m interested in Computer Science, but what can it look like in the workplace?” Ali Mohammed, a high school student in the Kenan Refugee Project’s Citizenship Lab, has been asking himself this question. Come August, after his internship in Durham Public Schools’ IT department, he may have found an answer. Ali and his fellow Cit Lab’ers Deo Niyomuremyi and Saad Ellahi begin work this week as a part of the City of Durham’s YouthWork Paid Internship program. The program places students in either a business or non-profit in Durham for six to eight weeks. Deo, Saad, and Ali are the first Citizenship Lab students to participate in YouthWork.

Citizenship Lab students and Durham Public Schools National Honor Society members visiting the Duke Lemur Center.

The interns are excited for work. Deo looks forward to gaining valuable work experience that will help him when he applies for college next year. Ali, a rising junior, has a say-yes approach to opportunities like YouthWork; when they arise he says, “I should take it.” Another Lab student, Omran Sawas, will participate in Made in Durham’s Youth Network this coming fall. Omran will collaborate with thirty young community leaders from around Durham to work on projects that remove barriers to academic success in Durham Public Schools.

The Citizenship Lab supports high school and college-age newcomers as they address migration’s most vexing challenges in Durham and the U.S. The Lab is built on relationships between newcomers and Duke undergraduates. They work together to reveal individual and community issues in education, employment, transportation, and housing. Then, Lab members collaboratively devise ways to address these challenges.

This past year Ali, Deo, Saad, and Omran participated in a series of Citizenship Lab workshops designed to help them balance school and work and develop college and career skills. They talked to speakers about career pathways in our region, created their first resumes, and honed interviewing and image management techniques. These skills came in handy as they successfully negotiated the competitive internship process. Next year the internship veterans will draw on their experiences to help lead these workshops.

The Citizenship Lab has three core goals: academic excellence, leadership, and robust citizenship. Bringing together about Duke students with high-school-age refugees weekly, The Citizenship Lab inspires community change through individual and collective action. 

Letter 7

The NFL may be the highest grossing sports organization, but (in my opinion) baseball is America’s game, if only because it is everywhere. Ball fields are a common sight for me as I ride, and often they are the most bustling part of town in the late afternoon. And, beyond the little leagues of smaller communities, the larger cities I pass through almost always have a minor league team. From Charleston to Bowling Green, Peoria to Omaha, every city has had a team, ranging from Rookie League to AAA. I spent Fourth of July in Grand Junction, CO, and joined the community in celebrating Independence Day in a most fitting way: A Grand Junction Rockies (Minor League) game.

While some in the Duke community have been to Bulls games, few have been to this kind of Rookie League baseball game. Rookie League implies that that the teams consist of players just in the beginning of their professional development. So, the play is volatile. Some nights, there are great pitchers, and it’s close to the very end. And, as with my case in Grand Junction, some nights the game is a blowout. The Pioneer League, in which the Grand Junction Rockies compete, spans much of the route I will travel on my way to Washington, with teams in Utah, Idaho, and Montana. Additionally, the character of the game, from the spectators to the ads read over the P.A., takes on a purer, unguarded form, compared with a Pirates game in Pittsburgh.

I am not the biggest baseball fan, but I was excited to walk into Suplizio Field on Wednesday. When I ascended the rows to the top of the stands, I was shocked by the sight of a packed crowd. Below me spread a sea of red, white, and blue, and, beyond them, the Rockies played the Ogden Raptors on the dirt and grass. On the outfield wall were splattered my favorite kinds of advertisements: The ones for the local car dealerships, the local funeral home, and Alpine Bank. I sat back, beer in hand, and felt an energy that I knew wasn’t coming from the score–the Raptors were shredding the Rockies. Instead, it was anticipation of the fireworks that would follow the game.

Given the fires raging throughout Colorado, I knew it was a treat to have fireworks tonight. They would rise up above the hulking mass of Grand Mesa to the east, a mountain so impressive that it’s religious importance to local Native American culture was not surprising to me. The game wrapped-up and the fireworks began, but what struck me about my third firework show of the summer wasn’t the light bursts themselves, but rather the musical accompaniment that flooded the stadium.

Various songs came on, but “I’m Proud to Be an American” elicited the greatest crowd reaction. The song details some of the American values most admired in the areas I’ve travelled through. And, hearing the loud voices of what felt to be most of the crowd, I knew that Grand Junction agreed. Freedom and family, pride and service, and, especially, respect and admiration for the armed forces: These are the things that called out from the stadium speakers and the people’s voice to the Mesa beyond. I couldn’t help but sense a dissonance between this set of American values and those that seem to dominate the Duke community: Minority rights, political sensitivity, and respect for all segments of the American populace (except for those who are subjugating others). I am a believer that these two belief systems naturally coalesce, but something about the current national discourse seems to suggest an irreconcilability between these two segments of the nation. Perhaps, at least, a few firework shows above the Capitol building could provide us with a shared reason to come together.

Letter 6

At the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer–an elegant, modern-style museum in Grand Island, NE–I encountered an “American” history that to me had always seemed foreign. In grade school, I had learned about the pioneers and even played a version of the iconic game The Oregon Trail. Still, my understanding of the real lives of the pioneers was moderate at best. While coal and steel history had always been familiar to a Pittsburgh kid, the pioneers embodied the opposite: A distant group living vastly different, rustic lifestyles. With my time in Nebraska though, my sense of the intrigue and importance of this pioneer history to contemporary communities has expanded. This sense has propelled my understanding to another level: Contemplating its relevance moving forward.

Grand Island in its modern form originated as much of Nebraska did–as a railroad-pioneer town. The cultural importance of this identity was prominent to me as I rode west from Omaha. I enjoyed the prominence of railroads, waving to conductors as they passed (and eliciting more than one train whistle of support), then again as they passed me a second time after they had stopped in a town to pick up the local crops. Each town rose up from the sea of corn and soybeans at regularly spaced intervals, which I would later learn resulted from the rhythm of railroad construction. So, when I arrived at the Stuhr Museum, I knew there were many secrets to learn.

I promptly asked a docent a myriad of questions, about railroads, about the museum, and about Grand Island. She graciously answered all, and I made mental notes of the exhibits she suggested I explore. As I visited the galleries, I was immediately stunned by their peculiarity and local pride. Stuhr originated as the Hall County museum, and, despite its expanded purpose, it still retains that local uniqueness as an institution. Several galleries featured Willa Cather (one of my favorite writers, from Nebraska) in one way or another, including the ground-floor exhibition of the filming of the movie adaptation of My Ántonia–one of Cather’s signature novels–which was shot in Grand Island.

Then, I had another question to ask the docent: What was it like in Grand Island during the filming, with the famous actors (including Neil Patrick Harris) and scores of locals used as extras? She described the unifying, festive effect the film had on the town, and how many citizens were direct descendants of the homesteaders who founded Grand Island and so took pride in the culture displayed. This added a sense of proximity to the pioneers that I hadn’t felt back East. The direct heritage was a fascinating element, but it raised a more nuanced question–how to identify the relevance of this history to newcomers to the area.

I asked her, and she confirmed what I had already observed: Grand Island has a significant Hispanic population. She estimated that 50% of the 50,000 residents would be Hispanic by the next census. A teacher during the school-year, she works directly with Hispanic students. She related how the longer an immigrant spends in Grand Island, the more relevant the pioneer becomes. As she further elaborated, she has hope for future generations because of this–increased exposure and familiarity will breed mutual understanding. I could tell that she was delighted and somewhat puzzled by the depth of my questions. But, when she read the phrase on my Kenan shirt out loud, she understood: “Expand Your Perspective.”

As I’ve gone through the summer, I have steadily improved at a crucial skill: being able to push a conversation further. When you have spent the previous week burning thousands of calories biking across the state and now find yourself talking to a lady you have never met, a million excuses to end the conversation come to mind. Being too tired; convincing yourself that the other person doesn’t want to talk to you; or, simply, that it just feels too awkward to keep asking questions. But with each next question, there is a chance of establishing a greater connection. And, as is the case in Grand Island, Nebraska, that connection has textured many of the most interesting questions of how to define community.


Letter 5

From time to time on the road, I meet other bikers. Most often, these are simply middle-aged men and women, cycling on a summer afternoon through their small-town county seat, or commuting back home. But, on rare, precious occasions, my cyclist counterpart has been another long-distance biker, easy to spot by the large, heavy-duty “touring” bags adorning her or his bike’s rear wheel. These encounters are very unlikely, especially given what I’ve heard from the 30-year-experienced gurus at cycling shops–that doing a trip like this was much more common in the 70s and 80s, but that now the stream of cyclists has slowed to a trickle. So, when I see someone also on a tour, my first reaction is to smile out of relief and curiosity, as they more than anyone can understand what I’m attempting this summer.

The first other tourist I saw was a solo-riding older lady. She was headed east to New York from Wisconsin, an extremely long journey, especially to complete on one’s own and at a leisurely pace, as she seemed to have adopted. She wondered where I was headed, inquired about my bike (my brother had her model), and asked how I’d been handling the traffic. Finally, she asked to take a picture of me–something I wish had done more of earlier on the trip, to remember the faces of the people I’d met. She was my first real introduction to the cycling community as experienced organically through the lens of my trip.

This connection continued further as I went on. I was surprised by a gradual change as I traveled through the midwest. As I moved up from Kentucky into Illinois, then west into Iowa, I began to see more and more bike lanes on roads and even separate paths. These led to conversations with other people enjoying the outdoors as much as I was, giving me insight into how families in communities such as Carlyle, IL spent their summer evenings walking across the dam to behold the beautiful expanse of a 15-mile long reservoir (they took the above picture). Heading into Cedar Rapids, IA, a fellow cyclist took this hospitality a step further, biking with me for what felt like 30 minutes, as we rode along the Cedar River’s rail trail. He shared a lot about his life, where he worked, his health conditions that had led him to cycling in the first place, his experiences with RAGBRAI (which I will describe later). Finally, he asked what I was doing with all those bags.

Together, experiences like these were so meaningful for me. These people opened a piece of their lives to me after I had just spent hours riding alone through a ninety-degree, humid day, and, in the case of the man on Cedar Rapids trail, provided some of the most personal and open conversation I had encountered in a long time. As I biked further through Iowa, I could tell that cycling played a large role in the community. I saw tons of cyclists, some in fairly large groups all wearing the same team jersey, taking to the trail. Not anticipating the presence of a bacon-themed race (the BACooN Ride) that was using the same trail as I, I even biked past thousands of riders one Saturday. A ride like this, just a one-day event, brought together an unbelievable number of cyclists and volunteers from small-towns west of Des Moines.

Amazingly, this ride was small in comparison to Iowa’s annual behemoth race: RAGBRAI. RAGBRAI–the Register’s Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa–is a six-day ride that begins in Western Iowa at the Missouri River and ends at the Mississippi, one that claims an average daily participation topping 15,000 people. Each year the route changes, allowing the six designated host-town slots to shuffle from town to town. From what I’ve heard from riders and in researching, these towns become huge camps and havens of food, rest, and general mirth for the mobile city of riders, support vehicles, and spectators. For instance, Jefferson, a town of 4,345 people, will be a host on this year’s RAGBRAI, accommodating a crowd well over double its population. The friendships formed and experience as a whole have been emphasized to me as unforgettable–as any ride across an entire state with “you and 20,000 of your closest friends” will be, as one man from Illinois put it.

Though I couldn’t partake in the event this summer, it is definitely on my to-do list (and maybe my to-do-many-times list). Moreover, until Iowa, cycling had largely been a solo experience for me–and definitely no where near a city or statewide phenomenon. This experience and the small window it provided into the Iowan style has profoundly affected me, showing the power of what a group of cyclists can do for each other and the world beyond.

Letter 4

For a cyclist, the land has a rhythm. Many factors define this rhythm; the cycle of going up and down hills, the presence of trees or direct (sometimes scorching) sun, and the alternation between storms, drizzle, and sunshine all contribute to the experience of a cyclist and, especially, define gear shifts, pacing, and the application of simple tricks to keep up spirits and motivation. The rhythm of West Virginia roads became very natural to me. The mountains and hills required much focus and persistence on the ascent, but I could always keep in mind that I would eventually have a long, sometimes steep downhill as a reward.

So, there was a cycle of psyching myself up to push upwards, then enjoying the fleeting sprint down, over and over. This became normal to me–predictable in a way that didn’t make the ride physically easier, but lifted some of the mental burden of motivation, allowing me to sync my riding rhythm with that of the land. But, this rhythm has changed as I have travelled further, and, as I found myself heading further west in Kentucky, I was challenged to adjust.

Kentucky was in a lot of ways disorienting. Whereas I had been used to steep hills and valleys, the roads in Eastern Kentucky seemed to follow narrow seams on top of ridgelines, providing for a stimulating aesthetic but a rhythm of a higher tempo than I was used to. Moreover, in West Virginia, I had some familiarity with almost every road, even if it was a just a vague awareness of its location with respect to some other road on which I had travelled. But, here in Kentucky, I had no reference points–I was covering new ground.

In addition to the change in terrain, I realized that this would be my first time west of the Appalachians for an extended period of time in a long time. While not a strict barrier per se, this was an important psychological threshold to pass on the trip, the point when the trip turned from a jaunt in the backyard to something more. All of these physical changes required a mental change to stamina and approach, which I came to develop as I went.

But, beyond this physical sense of distortion, I faced a much stronger challenge to which I had to acclimate. In Kentucky, I quickly realized my place as an outsider. The realization was both internal and external, one that I created in my own mind from a feeling of leaving my home-territory, and one I felt from those around me. While in West Virginia I could have easily been considered as native, from my knowledge of the area to my accent, in Kentucky there was no confusion, beginning with the accent. On Duke’s campus, we have such a diverse population that this Southern feature can be obscured, but on the road in Kentucky, in Walmarts, Subways, and at gas stations–all places frequented almost exclusively by locals–it was clear to me and to others that I was different, anytime I opened my mouth.

There was one particular afternoon, when I was holed up in a Walmart entryway in Lebanon, KY as a thunderstorm raged outside, that I endured the curious gazes of many. Some were skeptical of me and my strange appearance, on a bike and in my gear, while many too were sympathetic, jokingly lamenting the rain. From all, though, I could sense a curiosity that at times made me feel uncomfortably in the limelight.

These feelings all contributed to a sense of disorientation that, by the time I left Kentucky, had all but disappeared. This comfort arose not from within, but from the very same people to whom I seemed so strange. In a way that left me in awe in the moment and fascinated long after, Kentuckians showed me kindness that was as distinctly foreign to me as I was to them.

At one campground, a lady had heard from a staff member that I was biking across the country. So, as I sat journaling, she rolled up to me in her truck and stepped out holding a Ziploc bag containing assorted cookies, Cheetos, sausage, and other snacks; a bottle of Mountain Dew; and ice in a solo cup. Stunning me, she handed me all three, saying it was a gift and that she heard what I was doing and wanted to support me. I was so grateful to her, understanding how much she went out of her way to prepare such a gift.

But, also flashing in my mind was the nutritional value of what she had given me–undoubtedly not the preferred fuel for a biker about to travel 70 miles. I was conflicted, but quickly made my decision. As I sat back down, I cracked open the bottle and poured some soda into the cup, and enjoyed its bubbling as it ran down my throat. I ate the cookies, and I was grateful that someone had been so kind–and that sweet-tasting soda doesn’t get lost in cultural translation.

Letter 3

When I bike through most places on this trip, it will be my first time visiting. I usually react to a first visit with two emotions–first a sense of amazement at the beauty of the land and people, then a regret at not having visited earlier. In general, the latter does not prevail for very long, since it doesn’t make sense for me to have visited every possible location. But, it was different in West Virginia. When I rode through Canaan Valley, an incredible high-elevation valley with marshes, creeks that run black, and expansive mountain views, and up Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia and my trip’s highest point until Colorado, the regret was intense.

Before going on this trip, I thought I knew a lot about the mid-to-southern Appalachian Mountains. My family has taken many trips to the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania and mountains of western Maryland, the huge national forests surrounding Asheville (which Duke introduced to me through the PWILD pre-orientation program), and Shenandoah National Park. Yet, when I biked through Canaan Valley and up Spruce Knob, I felt sheer amazement, wondering how it was possible that I had been all over but never to such beautiful places, both so close to home. My sense of familiarity with the region had led me to prefer re-visiting old haunts in North Carolina or to assume a storied place like Shenandoah would have the best natural areas around. This tendency to overlook our “familiar” surroundings is one of the biases I have recognized in myself, but one that likely we all share.

When I arrived in Charleston, I had spent the past week on my own, in rural areas that were exotic to me, only sometimes crossing highways that reminded me of home. I had the pleasure of chatting with others in towns or at campgrounds or simply saluting them as I biked past. These interactions on their own could not dispel a latent longing to have many people around. I wasn’t aware of this need until I rolled out of Charleston’s South Hills, down the steep hillside and into a sweeping view of the State Capitol across the river. I felt it from the outset, and I would come to see it even more as I spent time there–that Charleston was exactly what I needed, both to synthesize what I had experienced over the prior week, and to find the community for which I so yearned.

As I left the hotel to explore (I won’t be camping during my city-stays, in order to allow me to reside closer to the people and local action), I was struck by a strange dichotomy: that a waiter could simultaneously paint Charleston as boring with nothing to do, yet also rattle off all of the places to visit and events and festivals to check out. As I visited more places, I gained some insight into how different people conceptualize the city and state as a whole. Some mentioned how the bigger cities in West Virginia formed cultural islands that weren’t well bridged by the people, who tend to stay in their own small part. Others spoke of how Charleston served as a focal point of the arts in the state (and I saw this firsthand in all of the festivals). But, a narrative I heard time and again was how there was something different about West Virginia, something quiet and free that some migrants to the area used as an escape from the big cities in Virginia and North Carolina. This sentiment has had a tangible weight that I could feel in the air and on the roads as I have biked through the state, something that could likely only be felt when you step out of a car and into a town or the country (or ride a bike through both).

Growing up, I didn’t think or know much of Charleston. I shared the quiet bias of Pittsburghers against West Virginia, likely arising from the Pitt-WVU rivalry I learned of, something not all that different from how Duke students can view UNC. But, as I spent more time there, I found parts of Durham, parts of home, and parts of myself in the people I met and conversations I shared. On Friday night, there was a kickoff to the weekly concert series, Live on the Levee, which brought citizens of what felt like all races, incomes, and parts of the city together to enjoy food, music, and fireworks, with the backdrop of the Kanawha River, upon the resources of which this town was founded. Watching all the children running and old friends arriving together to sit and enjoy the evening, instilled a sense of community within me that, despite being so far from my family and friends, made me feel welcome and at home, around all these people and places I’d never seen in my life. As I watched the fireworks launched from across the river, I couldn’t ignore the crazy feeling that, despite my transience in this city, for a brief moment on that night, I was a part of Charleston.