Project Change: Learning to Lead in Durham

By Rachel Revelle

Prepare to be changed.  This is the message we give 21 incoming Duke freshmen when they arrive in Durham for Project Change, Kenan’s pre-orientation program.  Admittedly any student heading off to college is going to expect some changes.  Leaving home, meeting new friends, discovering and defining interests—as a proud alumna I can say wholeheartedly that Duke is a fantastic place to do these things.  And Duke is becoming more and more recognized for promoting the idea that change should not just happen “inside the walls of the university.”  One of three core tenets displayed on the Duke Admissions site is engaged immersion.  That immersion could take place literally anywhere in the world.  But what about right outside the walls of the university?  What about in Durham, North Carolina, the city of residence for at least the next four years of students’ lives?

Admittedly there is more interaction than there used to be.  I have actually been living in Durham for seven years now (hard to believe— that is almost a third of my life!), first as a student at the North Carolina School of Science and Math.  I’m not sure we ever ventured further than the shops and restaurants of nearby 9th Street.  As a college student my classmates and I had more freedom to roam, but there seemed to be this invisible wall at the end of Brightleaf Square, especially as an underclassman.  Throughout this period, though, there has been increasing hype about Durham’s revitalization and food scene.  So maybe Duke students are venturing into Durham a bit more for the hip new bar or restaurant—I know I took satisfaction in introducing my friends to Motorco Music Hall senior year— and walking further downtown without joking about getting robbed at gunpoint is indeed a positive step.  I should also point out that there is great enthusiasm for “engaging” with the Durham community, through all manner of service-learning courses, tutoring programs, and volunteer opportunities.

In order to integrate these ideas about how students might be a part of Durham, Project Change tries to delve a little deeper into students’ perceptions of it.  We want students to participate in the life of their new community, to contribute to its well-being.  But we will challenge the perceived contribution they can make as a group of young adults new to the city, unaware of its strengths and weaknesses, as well as its people.  They no doubt have creative ideas and energetic spirits.  And Durham certainly benefits from the intelligent, innovative minds of Duke students, who have and will continue to make an important impact.  But just how can they be ethical leaders in this new place?  They can learn a lot from the incredible organizations and people that they will meet during Project Change, from those who are already tapped into the heartbeat of the community.  In figuring out how they will engage with Durham, they will first need to do a great deal of listening, paying attention, relating to the community around them.  Notice we are the ones to be changed.

We also, of course, want students to enjoy being residents!  Our strategy is to send kids headlong into the city upon arrival and learn what it has to offer.  That means a crash course in its history, its geography, its attractions, and yes, its food scene.  The discoveries may come through any manner of wacky activities—from intense team competitions, group puzzle-solving, and even a few fabled game show challenges.  (A highlight of the week for me is judging some of these events!)  Part of the experience is working through the initial discomfort of being unsettled, and relying on both new classmates and new neighbors to find their way around.  Ultimately they will be proud of what they know, and will be way ahead of the game for their next four years in Durham.

We hosted a reunion this spring for the first four Project Change classes, as the inaugural class was about to graduate and head into the wider world. They have new communities to inhabit, and I think are rightly humbled by how much they don’t yet know and what they hope to contribute.  It will be another opportunity to learn, engage, and eventually be enriched by a mutual relationship with a new place.  For the freshmen about to arrive, I hope they are ready to do that with Duke and with Durham.

It’s going to be a fun and crazy week for all of us.  As one Project Change student said last year, it taught him to “try new things on a gigantic new scale.”  Look out for more on our antics and adventures this week, and perhaps some of the changes that come about for this new cohort of Durham residents.