Stylized image of launch lab leadership team

The Secret Weapons of Launch Lab

Behind the success of Launch Lab, Kenan’s weekly refugee youth mentoring program, is a tight-knit group of four undergrads.  At first impression, these young men might seem an unlikely band of heroes to the 100 or so 4th-8th graders who occupy the West Duke Building each week.  However, these leaders offer the program’s youth much more than the average Duke student tutor.  Far beyond their jovial and approachable demeanor, these friends and colleagues are also migrants to the US,  and fully-epitomize hope and aspiration.

Meet classroom coordinators Diwas Gautam, Anshu Jonnalagadda, Rehan Khan, and Mishek Thapa. Since their first year at Duke, these four juniors have been an active part of Launch Lab, beginning as mentors and now in leadership roles. Drawing upon their own experiences learning to navigate language, life and achievement in the US, each of these student leaders have developed their own unique gifts of sharing, mentoring, and community building. 

During his first semester, Mishek Thapa (Statistics) signed up for Ethics 215 with his roommate. After working with the refugee community in his hometown of High Point, NC, he wanted to continue serving the same population at Duke. Though not a refugee, Mishek and his family are immigrants from Nepal and he found many similarities with the Launch Lab youth, particularly around adjusting to the education system in America. As I entered school, like many Launch lab students, I struggled with my English and reading skills. What frustrated me was that I was in the ESL classes for multiple years and made efforts outside of class to read, but I was still behind in reading every year.”  Differentiating the experience of a traditional American student, Mishek adds, “Each of our students has a particular nature, struggle, or quality that sets them apart from the students of families with multiple generations in America. Their background as refugees and the cultural legacy that comes with that experience along with the process of immigrating and resettling in America is that distinction.”  Mishek sees in the refugee youth a strong desire to collaborate and a commitment to persevere.   As a result, Launch Lab provides close mentoring relationships that help each student realize their capabilities and academic goals.

launch lab leadership
from left to right: Mishek Thapa, Rehan Khan, Diwas Gautam, Anshu Jonnalagadda
launch lab leadership
Rehan Khan (Neuroscience) has always been passionate about teaching youth and wanted to work with a program mentoring kids as a Duke student. He considers Launch Lab a perfect fit as he can closely relate to the students.  “When I first came to America, it was not only difficult to learn English, but especially difficult to keep up with my peers who had been taught in English their whole lives. I wanted to help children who were in a similar situation as me as a child.”  Among his successes at Launch Lab, Rehan recounts tutoring one refugee youth who was seriously struggling with math concepts and by the end of the semester was even exceeding in his grade-level math. 

Anshu Jonnalagadda (Neuroscience) also had experience mentoring kids in high school and was excited about having an opportunity at Duke to continue to change kids’ lives for the better.  One particularly rewarding outcome was when one of his students met their academic goal of being accepted into a magnet school.  For Anshu, “the success of Launch Lab is a result of it being filled with dedicated volunteers who not only help refugee children academically, but also mentor them in life – making sure they are comfortable living in a new country.”


Born in a Nepalese refugee camp, Diwas Gautam (Neuroscience) knew he wanted to do something big with his life even though the options to him there were limited.   He took an opportunity to immigrate to Salt Lake City when he was 12 years old, and due to language barriers faced a host of academic and social difficulties.  In a program similar to Launch Lab, Diwas was mentored by college students and was able to build confidence, gain a sense of community, successfully navigate the education system, excel academically, and was encouraged to apply to Duke.  He joined Launch Lab in his second semester, where he built bonding friendships with Mishek, Rehan, and Anshu.  Diwas points out that one of the main strengths of Launch Lab is its one-on-one formula of mentors to mentees, which differentiates the program from most, including the one in Salt Lake City.  He says, “In any program you can’t guarantee that every kid is going to go through the program and do well, but I feel like in this structure of one-on-one academic time and opportunities to have fun and socialize, that maximizes the amount of impact we can have on an individual kid.”   Diwas credits his ability to meaningfully connect with the students through sharing his similar childhood and his love for soccer. He sees the program more about mentorship than tutoring, and as a Launch Lab leader he offers this advice: “A lot of these kids do have gaps in their academics and we try our best to fill those gaps – but, we realistically have once a week with them for an hour and half. I tell my tutors that I have accepted the fact we can’t bridge all academic gaps, but if we concentrate on the mentorship part, be a positive role model as someone they can look up to – that’s where we can have a lasting impact.”

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Together, these four friends have managed to turn the tables on what it means to truly mentor the youth of Launch Lab.  As migrants, successful students, and future top scientists in their fields, they have written a new narrative for those newcomers who arrive with a sense that the cards are stacked against them and the road to achievement might be too daunting to travel.


Launch Lab at the Kenan Institute for Ethics is a weekly mentoring program for refugee youth ages 4th to 8th grade. Each Tuesday night, more than 100 young people from Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Vietnam come to the Kenan Institute to work with Duke students on honing their language skills, striving for academic success, and building community. Each evening includes a mix of outdoor, homework, and group-projects time.