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Graduate Students Becoming a Part of the Community

Duke University graduate students come from all over the world and call Durham home for five to six years on average. During these years, they work in labs, in classes, and with faculty and other students toward their degrees. But they also work in their community, in their new home. With the exception of the Service Learning Program (SLP) providing assistantships to graduate students to help SLP faculty teach their classes (, we have yet to develop civic engagement programs that are directed at graduate students at Duke University. But that has not stopped them from getting engaged in Durham.

Graduate students are involved in activism about local issues such as the use of new commercial space; they serve on the board of the Durham Historic Preservation Commission; some, like Erin Strickland and Adria Wilson, volunteer with girl scouts; others work with junior league groups to develop leadership skills and volunteer with local nonprofits that are involved in providing relief to Haiti. For this article, the Duke Center for Civic Engagement (DCCE) asked graduate students “How do you civically engage with your community?”

Rob Gillespie came to Durham four years ago from Florida and has since witnessed the transformation and redevelopment of the Bull City. Now a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biochemistry, Rob is also a correspondent for the popular blog,, where he writes about Durham’s politics, businesses, and neighborhood issues. “Durham is one of the most civically engaged communities in the world” says Rob, also a director of the Burch Avenue Neighborhood Association (BANA) and an active member of the Southwest Central Durham Quality of Life Project. Rob believes that staying in the community makes one realize that “you go to Duke, but you live in Durham” and it is these personal connections that make him passionate about the issues in his community. As a graduate student, not only does he get to work towards resolving some of these issues but his time in Durham actually allows him to see the change. “When you see the progress being made from your work, it’s the most satisfying thing,” he concludes.

For David Bradway, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the journey has been similar to that of Rob’s. When David first came to Durham in 2005 from Columbus, Ohio, he saw a city torn up by economic downturn, but now he sees that it has come a long way, blossoming every year with the redevelopment of the downtown. According to David, civic engagement begins by “becoming a part of your community, trying to make a difference in ways that you can put your skills to use, or to stretch beyond your comfort zone.” He did that by joining the Durham Wayfinders Program, where he volunteers his time to showcase Durham to visitors from out of town. He describes his role as that of an “ambassador for Durham.” David would like to see more volunteer opportunities for graduate students at Duke. Irrespective of the presence or absence of volunteer opportunities, he says, “I would challenge people to get out of their lab, try something new.”

Originally from New Jersey, Sarah Seiler, is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology who came to Duke to study diabetes. In Durham, she has met people who she says have helped her “succeed in life,” which made her think, “the biggest way to repay them is to give back in the same way.” Her engagement with the community started when she volunteered with the local branch of the American Red Cross in Chapel Hill, aiding in blood donation events. However, Sarah really wanted to impact the community on a more personal level. A friend involved in the Duke BOOST program (, introduced her to this program, which mentors children in Durham’s public schools. Sarah signed up to be a coach to seventh graders and has been with the program for the past two years.

She is now involved in starting a new BOOST chapter called 4G, which is designed specifically for ninth graders. Sarah and the other coaches are working together to develop this new program that encourages the students to graduate from high school and move on to college, things they might not have considered possible. For Sarah, the experience with BOOST has been eye-opening: “I know that some of my kids’ parents work multiple jobs and are rarely home, so the kids come to me with questions that tend to encompass all walks of life. Additionally I expose these kids to all kinds of food and activities they never would have experienced otherwise. It is a really great feeling to know you can positively impact a child’s life.”

Details about the Duke Center for Civic Engagement can be found at: Programs and initiatives at the DCCE cohere around four central values that pertain to all civic engagement: Learning, Collaborating, Reflecting, Transforming. At DCCE, we seek to create, sustain, and exemplify an ethos of civic engagement at Duke by connecting university education to public service, promoting reflection on the values of civic engagement, and cultivating synergy among Duke’s diverse efforts to make the world a more equitable place.

  • Baishakhi Taylor, Assistant Director for the Duke Center for Civic Engagement