Acclimating to life at Duke can be a challenge for many students and postdocs, especially if you’re adjusting to life in a new country on top of everything else. As part of the Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI), our team developed a crowd-sourced informational platform to help support Duke’s international community. We worked with International House (IHouse) to produce a resource that would assist new students and postdocs in making the transition to life in the U.S.
A Tale of a Kitty
“How do I adopt a cat?” An international student colleague came to our team member Anna with this question. This student had received conflicting accounts about the adoption process and about their eligibility to adopt as an international student. In frustration, they turned to their friend Anna for help.
Identifying the Problem
Intrigued by this story of feline disappointment, our group took a closer look at data we had collected from stakeholder interviews with an eye toward issues impacting the international community. This data pointed toward two main areas of opportunity.
First, there was no way to leverage the informal generational knowledge of the international community. Over their course of study, international students and scholars at Duke accumulate an abundance of tips and tricks for navigating life in the U.S., but they have no mechanism to pass on this knowledge to incoming groups. Duke’s IHouse does provide a wealth of resources for adjusting to life in Durham. However, creating a formal guide for every aspect of American life is simply impossible, so some knowledge was slipping through the cracks.
Second, there was no centralized hub for international trainees to access all relevant information. IHouse compiled much of this information, but there were other helpful resources spread out across the university website or beyond the Duke domain entirely (e.g. rental companies, childcare facilities). We wanted to find a way to help Duke students and scholars access all this information in one place.
Consulting with IHouse
With all of this in mind, our team set up a consultation with IHouse staff to discuss what programs they currently had to address these issues and how we might complement their efforts. The IHouse team told us about their International House Orientation Peer (IHOP) program (a great way for those interested in serving Duke’s international community to get involved!), in which current students help their incoming counterparts acclimate to life at Duke. They also told us about a dedicated Facebook group they created every year for new international students to post questions and make friends.
While the IHOP program was a resounding success, the staff expressed some reservations about the effectiveness of the Facebook group. Facebook’s popularity has been dwindling among younger generations, making onboarding of new students challenging. Having a single large Facebook group also made it difficult for smaller discussions on specific issues or niche interests to take place. Taking IHouse’s feedback on the shortcomings of the Facebook group, we began brainstorming alternative methods to transfer informal knowledge to new international students. The platform we eventually settled on was a Slack workplace.
Slack is a free instant messaging system that enables discussion and information sharing through a single user-friendly interface. Using the Slack platform, we hoped to create an easily accessible forum for Duke and student/postdoc-sourced information on a wide range of relevant topics. Since many trainees might already have experience with the platform from using it in a departmental or lab setting, Slack is an ideal forum to compile both currently available informational resources as well as student/postdoc-sourced information on a wide range of topics.
Once we had decided on the platform, we then asked ourselves, “What information should be included and where can we find it?” We started by looking at the resources already available through Duke-managed sources (IHouse, Student Affairs, Visa Services, Payroll, etc.), as well as community-based sources (DMV, realty companies, community colleges, childcare and public education systems, etc.), and finally from fellow international students and postdocs themselves. We then compiled this information into channels on a Slack workspace designed specifically for international graduate students and postdocs. The resulting workspace is pictured below:
Compared to Facebook, Slack allows each participant to join only the channels that are useful to them, refining their content and connections to specific interests and facilitating smaller-sized group communications. Additionally, accessibility within or across channels and messaging areas is greatly improved through the addition of a search function. With our foundational Slack prototype in hand, we turned back to the IHouse staff to help us implement this as a usable resource for the Duke international community
Looking to the Future
We are happy to report that the IHouse team will be using our Slack workplace to welcome the next class of Duke international students and scholars! We hope that this resource will help many cats and kittens find loving homes with Duke’s international community, and that it will ease many other aspects of the transition to Durham for international trainees.
If you would like to share your knowledge and experience with your international peers, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Postdoctoral associate, Department of Neurosurgery
Michael Adoff, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Neurosurgery at Duke. He received his Ph.D. in Neurobiology from Northwestern University where he developed new optical microscopy techniques to explore how activity patterns at the synaptic level contribute to the formation and storage of spatial memories. At Duke, he utilizes human neocortical and hippocampal tissue specimens derived from neurosurgical procedures to investigate epilepsy pathophysiology and develop novel cell-and gene-based therapies. When he’s not in lab, you can find him walking his dogs around Durham.
Ph.D. student, Biomedical Engineering
Anna Marie Gann is a second-year Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering. With the McIntyre laboratory, she researches computational methods to improve the deep brain stimulation (DBS) pipeline and improve patient outcomes. Anna is interested in machine learning applications for medical image processing and signal processing. She is a Georgia native and received her B.S. in Cognitive Science and Computer Science, B.A in Philosophy, and M.S. in Artificial Intelligence at The University of Georgia before coming to Duke. Anna aspires to be a research and teaching professor in Computer Science and Biomedical Engineering.
Ph.D. candidate, Program in Literature
Evan Pebesma is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Literature. His research interests include political theory, American studies, and contemporary U.S. literature. Evan’s dissertation project explores how American comedy engages with the defining political issues of our time, with a focus on how this genre treats culture as a political force. Evan is also actively involved in graduate student government, where he currently serves as the Director of Academic Affairs.
Professional Development Tag
- Collaboration and Teamwork
- Emerging Leaders Institute