Alexandra McKnight, the A.J. Fletcher Community Engagement Fellow in the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, volunteered as a staff guide during the 2011 School Days event, which brought hundreds of Durham Public Schools 8th graders to Duke’s campus to learn about college. Following are McKnight’s reflections on her experience.
Until recently, I had never heard a child say that they didn’t have aspirations to attend college. Maybe that’s because the students I normally interact with still have a thing called recess and are just learning to write their names; school is new for them and still holds a spark.
When Vice President for Durham and Regional Affairs Phail Wynn, Jr. asked how many of the approximately 400 middle school students in the crowd at School Days planned to attend college, I looked up towards the children sitting in the bleachers of Cameron Indoor Stadium above me. It wasn’t the smiles or waving hands that caught my eye. The “Me, me, me!” screams didn’t process because there was one girl in my section who was fervently shaking her head “No.” A classmate seated beside the young girl asked her why. She shrugged her shoulders and, smiling, said, “I’m just not.”
I told myself she had to be joking, attempting to sound cool, so I just turned around. I think it was in the aftermath of that moment—when I couldn’t stop arguing with myself about whether this 8th grader was serious, when I considered pulling her to the side, when I began wondering whether anyone in her family had ever gone on to college—that I grasped the importance of the Duke-Durham School Days event.
In late October, Duke hosted its 12th annual Duke-Durham School Days event, for 31 groups of students from ten DPS middle schools. The day consisted of Duke staff and faculty escorts not only touring these students around campus landmarks but taking them into actual labs, classrooms, and academic lectures. They exposed these young minds to dorm life and student-run organizations. The main objective? To have these 8th graders, soon-to-be high school students, start giving serious thought about college in their future by turning the idea into a tangible experience. The hope was to spark, rekindle, or continuing fueling their hunger for education; to create that “Aha!” moment when a child thinks, “Yeah, college is for me.”
As a recent Duke graduate and current staff member, I was able to express the excitement, challenges and rewards that come along with attending an institution of higher learning like Duke University. My group was quiet when we first left Cameron but they warmed up by the time we reached the main quad. The questions started flying. How many schools did you apply to? What was your major and why? Did you work? What’s that pink spray-painted car doing on the main quad? Why do you call it the ‘main quad’ anyway? Do you know any football players? Is college hard? I, along with the two freshmen Duke students assisting me, answered all their questions, introduced them to football and basketball players, and took them wherever they were interested in visiting. My students asked to see the student textbook store, where one day they might find themselves searching for the last “used” copy of a book for class. After hearing that two of the girls in my group liked art and design, I made sure we visited the Office of Student Activities and Facilities so they could learn about DiDA (the student-staffed marketing and design center). I wanted them to see that Duke, and college in general, is a place not only to learn but to grow and develop your natural talents and interests.
At the end of the day I was honestly sad to see my group of Brogden middle schoolers leave. Each of my students hugged me goodbye. I told them to keep trying new things, searching for their passion, and excelling in school—though I will admit that I pushed the girls towards math and science (I blame Duke for turning me into a feminist). During their School Days experience I tried to give them advice that I could have used when I was in 8th grade. While I only had them in my care for 3 to 5 hours, I feel assured that Duke and School Days left an imprint in their educational journey.
My current job at Duke University’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs has taught me that in the life and education of a child there are many different stages of intervention—pre-kindergarten readiness, first and second grade literacy, etc. After the entire School Days group (eighth graders, chaperones, Duke faculty and staff escorts, Duke students) exited Cameron Indoor Stadium that morning, I didn’t see the young girl who had declared that college wasn’t a part of her life plan. I can’t help but think that School Days might have served as an intervention for her.