Rahteesha Burgess reminisced about her time as a Lakewood Elementary School kindergartner. She would sit on a big carpet in her Durham classroom or play house with the other students.
About 12 years later, Burgess, now a first-year Duke student, spent the end of her Duke Orientation Week volunteering at Lakewood Elementary School on Saturday, spreading mulch and pulling weeds on the school grounds where she once used to play and learn.
“I just wanted to come back,” said Burgess, who came across the Lakewood service opportunity when she signed up for “Duke, Durham and Beyond,” a program that connects first-year Duke students to Durham through themed excursions. “I come from a small town. I want to take any opportunity that I can. I really want to be involved.”
During this year’s “Duke, Durham and Beyond,” Duke staff and faculty organized 17 outings across Durham, visiting places such as the Durham Farmers Market, Museum of Life and Science, Eno River State Park and downtown Durham. The program was organized by the Duke Office of New Student Programs, and about 200 first-year Duke students participated.
The annual program, which is meant to help students develop a “home away from home” at Duke, kicked off on East Campus Saturday morning. Then each group departed on their Durham journey.
Burgess and eight other members of Duke’s Class of 2021 volunteered at Lakewood Elementary School’s garden. The Duke Office of Durham & Regional Affairs as well as Duke University Retiree Outreach, a retiree organization for retired Duke employees and their spouses, helped plan the excursion.
“This group of first-year students had the opportunity to learn from one of our partnership schools and see where Durham’s children start their education,” said Eliza Mathew, senior program coordinator of education initiatives for the Duke Office of Durham & Regional Affairs. “I hope a seed has been planted in the foundation of their time at Duke that encourages them to engage with Durham’s schools and youth.”
Besides weeding and mulching, students ate a boxed lunch and talked about where they were from, ranging from Nanjing, China, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They also discussed their academic interests, to include neuroscience, gender studies and pre-law.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore the area I’m going to be in,” said Duke student Elizabeth Bartusiak about “Duke, Durham and Beyond.” She is from Lake Forest, Illinois, and hopes to major in computer science. “(I’m) just expanding my horizons and exploring all of the things I’ve never explored before.”
The principal of Lakewood Elementary School, James Hopkins, sat with Duke students and discussed Durham’s education system as well as his school’s renewed focus on encouraging young students to think about college.
“I appreciate you guys giving back, and thank you for being here today,” Hopkins said. “People believe in our school, and their actions help us serve our most vulnerable and neediest kids and their families.”
Hopkins heard that a former Lakewood Elementary School student was in the crowd, and he looked toward Burgess. Burgess, who is attending Duke as part of the David M. Rubenstein Scholars Program that supports first-generation college students, is planning to study chemistry and gender studies. She hopes to become a pediatrician that works with young patients of diverse genders.
Hopkins said he would speak of Burgess’ academic journey, from Lakewood Elementary School to Duke University, to his 427 students this year.
“I don’t know you, but I’m proud of you,” Hopkins said. “Our kids need to see that.”
Story and photos by April Dudash