Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Gang Does Graduation

Taylor: “Closing Time, Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning’s End”

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Working at the institute had become routine: grab the sign-in sheets, fix the nametags on the table, collect paperwork, first trainer, keep the kids away, break time, second trainers, keep the kids from chatting, grab the sign-out sheets, breathe. It was a routine that others may have found monotonous or dull, but one that I found filling.

But today was the last day of this routine. The end of the first half of our trip. Graduation. 

From day one, I knew that graduation was going to be a hard day for me. Not only did I have to wear a dress, which is a form of torture in and of itself, but also I had to face my irrational fear of goodbyes.

I am afraid of a lot of things: the future, the dark, the boogie-man, change (both types), spiders, getting old (the list goes on but I don’t want to bore you). But the thing I am most afraid of is saying goodbye. I am so bad at saying goodbye that I have created an ingenious way of avoiding them—not saying goodbye--and I have tricked myself into believing that if I don’t say goodbye to someone I will eventually see them again.

But today I had to face my fear and say goodbye.

The only experience I have with gradations are the ones I have been a part of and the ones I have attended, which brings me to a grand total of four graduations (I think). In these four ceremonies everyone was dressed in the classic “cap and gown” get up (yes there were leis on leis on leis) and walked the stage when their name was called. Easy, Breezy, Beautiful, Graduation.

Today was different. Today’s graduation was not the cap and gown graduation I was so accustom to (there were no leis!). Instead it was pant suits and ties, awards to community members, a lunch-in, and, the cherry on top, a dance number (all graduations from here on out should include dance numbers, they make everything better). It was graduation that celebrated the hard work of the kids.  

While the graduation was not one that warranted tissues and waterproof mascara it was still one that marked the end. And ends mark the need for goodbyes, change, and the future coming closer. (Not sure you caught that the three things I listed also fall under the category of things Taylor is afraid of, but they do.

But it wasn’t until Mike came up to me and asked, “You good Serg?” (Mike calls me Serg, short for sergeant, because I am bossy/lead the group) that I realized how “not good” I was because I have become so invested. These kids were not just a service project for me. They were my friends. And I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.

The institute and its roughly 70 students and four career advisors taught me so much, from slang (jit—a kid, someone who is young) to my strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and it showed me my career interests in action. And I would like to think that in between the millions of things I learned I was able to teach others a thing or two too.

Actually, I hope I didn’t teach the kids anything because I don’t know if I have much to teach. Instead I hope that my desire to hold them to a different/higher standard than they are usually held to taught them to hold themselves to that same level because they are capable of more.

Why? Because I watched Coach Carter on the third day of the institute (if you haven’t seen it please go watch it because it’s an amazing movie about a great true story) and realized that he not only held them to a high standard for their fitness and skill level on the court, but off the court too. Instead of standing on a soap box and telling the kids they need to do better in school he simply expected them to do better. So I hope I did that.

But who knows if we, or I, made an impact on these kids? Who knows if they even caught on to my dream to be Coach Carter and hold them to a higher standard? Who knows if they will even remember these three weeks?  

And while I struggle with goodbyes, I survived graduation. I said my goodbyes. But I will not let go. While the memories of this summer may fade away (because I am terrible at remembering things) the lessons I have learned will not be lost on me.

So here to the end of the institute, to the good and the bad days, to the new friends, the leadership workshops, and most of all here’s to the end of long winded, stream-of-conscious-thought blog post.

Over and Out,

Taylor Doty

Amrith: "The Little Things Make a Big Difference"

            Another week has flown by, and the three-week New Generation & Workforce Leadership Institute has come to a close. I think the biggest question we all had through our first four weeks here was whether or not we were actually having an impact on the students and the Unidad staff, and near the beginning of the Institute, it was tough to find an answer.

But the way the students said good-bye to us after the Institute had ended has led me to conclude that just by being there to talk to the students, to get to know them and to hold them to a different level of discipline than they had ever experienced, we definitely made an impact.

Many of them grew a lot and learned a lot in just the few weeks that we had been around them, and it was great to see all of the progress culminate in the graduation ceremony.

                Seeing one of the quieter students from Level 2 of the program take the initiative to ask if he could thank the primary trainer—Mr. Hardge—publicly for all he had taught the students really showed the self-confidence and belief a lot of them gained. The students weren’t the only ones that showed what they had learned and showed appreciation for us, though.

Because only two of us are staying with Unidad and six of us are being transferred to work at other nonprofits, the staff expressed their thanks for the work we put in and everyone emphasized how much easier we made the activities associated with the Institute.

                We didn’t have a lot of officially scheduled time to facilitate workshops for the students, and don’t really have a concrete deliverable that can show the impact we had, but I think the little things we all did like greeting the students friendlily and smiling at them to show we cared made more of an impact than we will ever comprehend.

Just by giving the staff more support and showing that we wanted the students to learn and be successful, the interactions we had with everyone associated with the Institute were very positive.

Because the staff has been distracted at times with different evaluations and funding issues, we have gone above and beyond our job description and tackled the problems related to discipline that we observed at the Institute.

It would have been easy to sit back during the three weeks and allow the trainers and paid staff to dominate everything, but we all wanted to make a lasting impact on this year’s Institute, so we found areas where we could take on more than originally planned to benefit everyone.

It may have seemed like a minute occurrence when we all individually found our niche at the Institute, but when we started separating from each other and the label that comes with being a “Duke intern,” I feel like we all were the most effective.

By contrast, during those moments when we stuck together too much as a group and were not willing to separate from each other, it seemed like the students were less well-behaved and more incidents occurred.

It is very challenging to try to reach out to people that are so different than oneself—as was the case for most of us during the Institute—but I was happy to be able to use the experiences I have had relating people of different backgrounds; now, more than ever, I see the importance of putting oneself in the shoes of other people before working with them or trying to assist them.

One of the reasons that relating to the Unidad staff and the students was easier is that our orientation to Miami took us to many different parts of the city, introduced us to many different people in the city and most importantly, showed that many of our preconceptions were inaccurate.

Being able to observe some of the less glamorous aspects of the city made it much easier to relate to the students because we had already started thinking about relating to Miami’s working class since our arrival.

Although I like to always be doing productive tasks and was a bit anxious to start working during our orientation, I now see how important it was, and more generally, how important it is to really get to know one’s surroundings beneath the surface before starting this type of work.

A final important lesson I took away from the Institute was the importance of doing one’s professional duty, regardless of the circumstances, because the results will eventually come. One of our main roles was to hold the students to a higher standard of conduct and behavior than many of them had ever experienced—it was the first professional experience for many of them.

But it was extremely difficult to discipline and express disappointment in kids who already have been going through so many hardships in life; a major concern was that the students would not react well to feeling inadequate or rejected after being disciplined.

After pondering the issue, I now realize that even if the students would not have a good reaction initially to us asking them to adjust their behavior, they would hopefully see the importance of censoring one’s conduct in professional settings.

By the end of the Institute, having shown we cared about the students by doing things like helping them put on their ties for graduation, I think they gained a new level of respect for us and our advice to them. I definitely learned that with this type of work, it takes time to see a notable change or result.

                As one of the two students staying with Unidad to complete the projects I started relating to the students’ paperwork and year-round activities, I am very excited to see what I can do in the next four weeks to continue giving the kids chances to be successful. The Level Two students are to be placed at internships in the coming weeks, so I think being part of that process will be very exciting.

It will be great to see the progress they continue to make, and I may even be able to visit some of them at their job sites.

                Although it will be different working without the support of my seven fellow DukeEngage participants, I look forward to continuing to make the best out of every situation thrown at me and hope I can keep assisting the Unidad staff. At this point of the program, I am thrilled to be able to say that I don’t know of anything I could have done more or differently to benefit the Institute or the students, and I hope that feeling continues.

Go Duke,

Amrith Ramkumar

Mike: "Impact"

           The past three weeks have been absolutely rewarding. The payoff for all the unorganized chaos that the staff had to maneuver through can most definitely be seen in the eyes of the students who recognized that our departure from the program would be depressing. Yet, it is by the very nature of pain and heartache that students can strengthen themselves. Hopefully, a longing for contact, whether it is through a friendship or mentorship, will inspire the students to continue searching for the answers that can open their doors of opportunity. With regards to the students that did not reveal any type of saddened sentiment for the end of the leadership institute, it is also my hope that at one point in time they will come to a realization in which they can reflect on the experience and truly learn from it. In the end, the ultimate impact will be intangible given that success can be defined from multiple different perspectives. Strides in student improvement will occur through the integration of the skills students gained from the leadership institute program and their daily lives. I have faith that many of the students will be able to plant a better foot forward when they apply for college or join the workforce.

            Personally, I also felt saddened to a lesser degree that the program came to an end. I was able to learn a lot about how I feel interacting with the youth. I realized that I could only do so much without drowning the students in life skills. As such, I will leave the program with many suggestions for further improvement, but I will leave with no regrets. I am grateful that I had the chance to mentor and bond with the students and I look forward to my transition working with youth in a detention center. I am curious to see the differences between both youth groups as my time in Miami comes to a close.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Hailey: "Life is like a Sandwich…”

“Miss Hailey, what is that thing attached to your belt?” “Miss Hailey, can I go to the bathroom?” “Miss Hailey, what’s Duke like?”  These questions and many more are what I answered on a daily basis as essentially a camp counselor at the Leadership institute and I would not have it any other way.

The Leadership Institute was filled with a lot of ups and downs, but nothing that did not turn into a learning experience. By the end, both the Level 1 and Level 2 students felt more comfortable with us, as we each got to know each other better and they were more willing to open up to us. Being in the back of the room most of the time and listening to whatever the speaker or lecturer is trying to say to help these kids out (but most of the time not succeeding in getting through to them), made me realize what it takes to be a good public speaker, but more importantly what it takes to be a good teacher. It has made me grateful for all of the good teachers and mentors that I have had in my life so far that have taught me everything from, how to solve math problems to how to treat everyone with respect. Anyone can be a teacher, because each one of us is constantly learning from each other and playing off each other’s strengths and weaknesses to help each other out. I think this is also a characteristic of a leader. I hope this realization is one that these students picked up on and capitalized on by the end of the academy, and I hope I had a part in making this happen. At times, because the program is very structured and is presented as a job, due to the fact that the students are getting paid for their time here, it is difficult for them to want to engage in whatever activity is happening and to not think of this as school. We had a lot of group reflections and staff reflections to help address challenges such as these that have came up during the institute.

During one of our group reflection circles in particular, Margarita, who is the overall director of Unidad, told us something that really caught my attention.  She said that, “life is like a sandwich. The more you add to it, the better it gets.” The foodie in me thinks this is just fantastic and so clever, but when you really start to think about it, it is so true.  My experience with Unidad has definitely made me grateful to have this type of opportunity that has made me think a lot about my future aspirations and about all of the different types of problems and disparities that are happening here in the United States. I hope that these students at the end of institute, and as they reflect on it, realize how valuable of a program it was and how much the people that put it on, cared about their success and in their future. I know I do!

I thoroughly my time at the Leadership Institute and learned a lot along the way. It makes me really sad that to think that I will more than likely not see these kids ever again, but in my optimistic way of viewing just about everything, I hope so.

It is hard for me to think about what a day is like in these students’ lives and what kinds of individual tribulations they might be going through on a daily basis. I have a younger sister who is going to be a rising junior in high school, and she is the same age and in the same grade as a lot of the Level One students. It is hard for me to picture my sister in this type of environment and having to deal with some of the things these kids go though. Having to wake up super early and take a two hour bus ride just to be at the Convention Center on time, be pregnant, live with multiple siblings in a small house, live off food stamps, going to a not so good public high school and many other defining characteristics are what shape the realities of a bunch of the students.

Every time I text or call my mom to check in, give her updates, complain, and brag, she always ends the conversation saying something along the lines of “Go forth and make a difference to improve what you can and make suggestions when appropriate. Make us proud! We love you!” I want to say that I am doing that all the time, but that I did that and more at the leadership institute. It is hard for me to say if the students that we worked with get this kind of encouragement, have a good support system, and have high expectations for themselves. I tried to be all of that for them during the three weeks. I think the students learned a couple of valuable things from the different trainers and speakers and workshops they had, but from us, it was not anything concrete. It has been said several times by a lot of different people that just us being there is making a difference not only in how the program ran, but in the students as well. Us holding them to standards and expectations they have never been held to before, making them aware that some of the words they say are very derogatory and should not be said, and just talking to them about college are just some of the ways that I feel that we as the “Duke” interns have touched the students.

It is going to be a challenge having to describe what exactly I did during the leadership institute and what kind of a difference and an impact I made on the program and the students because of the wide range of tasks and problems we were faced with.  Now that my time with Unidad is over, I will be taking my skills to a completely new placement site. I will be working at the Catholic Legal Services of Miami. I am looking forward to being able to use my Spanish a lot and getting to learn about a new field of study.

- The Mexicube 

Meghan: "Between a Rock and a Hard Place"

While I typically shy away from cliques, this particular one often feels like it perfectly describes working in an NGO. It is an experience that is full of frustrating conflicts that I as a temporary “intern” often do not have the authority or ability to resolve. We frequently experience poor organization, lack of distinct authority figures, ineffective bureaucracy, and insufficient funds, but this is rarely the direct result of those who work for the NGO. For the most part, those who work at NGOs do so because they care and want to do the job to which they have been assigned. Unfortunately, the true rock and hard place come from a vicious cycle that is engrained in the nature of small to middle sized NGOs. While it is often difficult to discern what comes first, the cycle consists of lack of funding, ineffective proceedings, and disorganized leadership. This becomes a whirlpool of conflicts that leave NGOs scrambling to stay afloat and provide services it has promised in its contract. UNIDAD has recently experienced this problem as it struggles to renew its government funding. As is the case with several governmental processes, the government has made UNIDAD jump through hoops to earn its funding allowance. This has negative impacts in ways people who are not intimately associated with the organization would not understand. For example, as part of its contract for funding for the past two years, UNIDAD has had to recruit members for its youth program from populations of high school students who are either from low income families, failing classes in school, or part of a foster program. This has dragged the leadership institute away from its initial purpose, which was to provide a program in which children from all sectors of life—wealthy, poor, disadvantaged or privileged could come together and learn from one another. Furthermore with a room full of fifty students in situations that make them prone to disciplinary problems, the likelihood of students who don’t actually care to learn souring the experience for others increases.

            Besides the lack of funding that affects the very nature of the program, this dearth also means that UNIDAD suffers from a lack of funding to streamline its administrative processes. There are hundreds of paper forms that participants have to fill, out sign, and keep track of—a process that would be simplified if done electronically. Unfortunately this is where the vicious cycle comes back to weaken the organization because there are no funds to provide electronics. These problems would exist even if we Duke students were not there, but after our arrival, I have noticed another unfortunate cog in this vicious cycle that has become glaringly clear.

            Fortunately in the world today, there is a large cohort of young, eager volunteers, such as Duke Engagers who want to help NGOs that are floundering and desperately need help due to their lack of funding. Unfortunately, once young volunteers, drawn to poorer organizations, reach the sites at which we work, we realize that the NGOs often do not know how best to utilize us eager helpers. What’s more is that the organizations are often desperately trying to stay afloat and do not have time to figure out how volunteers fit into the picture. We DukeEngagers felt the effects of this part of the vicious cycle the first week we worked with UNIDAD. When we arrived, our site coordinator was told that “we were going to be filling a great need,” but when we spent a majority of our first week passing out papers, administering tests, and keeping students awake, we were initially disenchanted by the role we were given. However, I have been greatly impressed by the persistence of my fellow Duke students; we felt we could help more than we had this first week, and so found a solution. After our last reflection session last Sunday, we came up with suggestions and frustrations we wanted to bring to the program director, and we nervously came in early Monday morning to express these thoughts. To our great pleasure and surprise, the program director felt exactly the same and helped us turn some of our suggestions into action. As soon as that Monday morning session broke, I felt a change. The other Duke students and I were given opportunities to have breakout sessions with the institute participants and interact with them. We were given more leadership roles and were trusted with important decisions, and soon the week flew by in a busy whirl. I started the week disenchanted and worried that I was not filling a need, and I ended it exhausted but having learned a great deal from my experiences. I knew every name of every student in the program (no small task as their names were often long and hard to pronounce). I became a trusted confidant to some, a support to others, and a leader to look up to for others. I felt like the students started to want me around rather than just tolerated having me there; I felt like they respected me. And I respect them. I really respect them.

Today we had a reflection session in which our site coordinator Miguel asked us Duke students to picture a day in the life of these kids in the institute, and as Amrith expressed, this task is almost impossible. None of us know what it’s like to scramble for food every day or to come from a truly broken home. Our mothers were not thirteen when they had us, and we have good homes to which we will return; some of the kids in the UNIDAD program have this as well, but many do not. And we will probably only scrap the surface of knowing the hardships these kids experience on a daily basis. So yes, the vicious cycle of NGOs is frustrating at times, but I am grateful that I have been thrown into its chaos. I have learned from these kids and have been given a full exposure to a group of kids with which I never would have interacted. While in a different form than its director initially envisioned, the UNIDAD leadership institute has almost reverted back to its former mission. It has brought us privileged Duke students to many disadvantaged high school students, and we have taught and learned from each other.  I don’t know if the students would say the same, but I know at least parts of these past two weeks will stay with me for a long time.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

All: "Meet the Team"

As promised, here are a couple (because a couple means two) photos of the DukeEngage Miami 2014 crew. Enjoy. 

After our visit to Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.
(From left to right: Ritika, Meghan, Mike, Hailey, Brenda, Karina, Taylor, and Amrith) 

In uniform at the Miami Beach Convention Center (4th day of work and 3rd day of the institute).

Ritika: "Mmmmiami"

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I must be a man because our culinary tour definitely swept me off my feet.

Despite eating vegetarian substitutes because Cubans love their meat, I had plenty of delicious dishes. Starting with plantains and yucca it was a whole new experience. Fresh guava pastries satisfied my sweet tooth, but I knew it was love when they poured us colladas. Sweet-brewed espresso shots quelled my caffeine cravings for hours.

We spent the rest of the day exploring Calle ocho, but I felt we were prying when we entered Domino park. Domino, as we learned, is a very popular game among Cubans and this park was established especially for those over age 55 to play. It’s a great idea, don't get me wrong, but walking in as a group of 11, all of us clearly much younger than 55, felt uncomfortable. I didn't want to intrude on the gentlemen's afternoon because they aren't a spectacle for tourists. I made an effort to smile and say "Hola," but I felt relieved when we left the park.

I think the best way to experience a culture is through food, everybody eats and everybody loves to share food, (okay maybe not everybody). Hospitality is the common thread among cultures everywhere. What you eat says a lot, not only about you or your upbringing, but also about the community and the climate that you are from. It's a scrumptious introduction without the intrusion, everybody's full and happy.

We even got ice cream on the tour from a famous shop called Azucar, named for a famous dancer. If you ever get to go, sample everything you’ve never heard, then get a cone of the Abuela Maria. You won’t be disappointed.

Sorry to leave you hungry,


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Karina: "Looking Back"

I am starting to feel like I live here. As I continue to spend time in other places other than where I grew up, I realize how much the concept of home becomes more and more relative.  I love my city of San Diego but there is too much beauty in the world to only have one home. Home is wherever I feel the love and right now, the paradise known as Miami is twirling me in its rays.

We have visited many neighborhoods here in Miami. I think my favorite activity of this week was visiting Hialeah High School. I have a couple Duke friends from this area and I wanted to see what the area was like. My interest in understanding individuals and their personal diaspora within the world helps me in comprehending them, their behavior and actions (can you tell I love sociology and anthropology?). It is almost like a dissection of another’s identity and then material for which to compare my experience with. So, I was looking forward to this visit. Despite having to wake up early, driving up to Hialeah High felt oddly familiar, almost as I was coming home after a long semester from school. Perhaps it was the rawness of Hialeah that felt so unequivocally normal to me. By “rawness,” I mean the lack of façade and the presence of honesty and reality. Unlike the wonders of the beach or other certain parts of Miami, Hialeah didn’t have a façade. It represents the reality of the most recent wave of Cuban immigrants—the ones who have to combat the media’s interpretations that all Cubans are wealthy white Republican individuals and at the same time overcome language barriers, cultural differences, poverty etc. It was an experience that I am familiar with that felt normal to me on that humid rainy morning.

Hialeah High School houses many first generation college students. We met with Ms. Grandal, the college advisor and with some students who were part of the school’s National Honor Society and Key Club. They gave us a tour of their high school, we entered classrooms, heard from teachers and learned about how the school works. As a proud first generation college student, I felt like I was touring my own life experience. Granted, Hialeah High seemed to serve more students than my small charter school (I am definitely privileged in that respect). Visiting the school sent me straight back to high school. It seems like the kids at Hialeah High were incredibly motivated to get to college and beyond and that was quite inspiring. 4 years ago I was preparing to apply to college. Now, I am preparing to finish my last year at Duke University. Never did I think I would see the day! I, of course, knew that graduation would happen but thinking about it is so surreal.

Sometimes I get so caught up in the Duke world, and try to be like the rest of the students—which makes sense, we all want to feel like we belong. I forget. I forget that I come from a place similar to Hialeah High and the high schools where the kids at the institute are from. I come from an area where most people don’t go to college or if they do, it’s a community or state college. I reflect back on senior year and how much work it was and how blessed I felt to get into my first choices. And I think about the people and programs that helped me make it possible. While most kids get to college with the help of their parents and their own hard work, I had a team behind me. Why? Because, statistics told me that I wouldn’t make it. But then, other statistics told me I could. And so, I did. We did.

Kisses, besos, beijos,


Friday, June 6, 2014

Meghan: "Glitter Glue"

One of the coolest experiences is meeting the creator of something (a book, a song, a piece of artwork) that has inspired you, and today in Little Haiti, I got to experience just that. 

On our second day in Miami, we visited the very new, very modern museum PAMM just on the outskirts of urban Miami. About an hour into our visit, I wandered into a room that contained an exhibit that appeared to be a glitter wonder world.  Each gigantic piece was an intricate world of blues, greens, purples, darkness, and sparkling details of glitter. I was entranced. This darkly magical room was not without humor though; one of the pieces depicted Disney characters such as Mickey, Daffy Duck, and Batman in a boat floating among these beautiful glittery trees in a crystalline body of water. I had no idea what inspired that humorous touch or even how these amazingly intricate works could have been produced. I left the room in awe and with a lot of questions. This was why I was so excited to find out that we were going to have the opportunity to meet the creator of this exhibit in person in little Haiti.

The artist is Edouard Duval-Carrie. He grew up in Haiti until he was nine years old and then moved to Puerto Rico only to move back to Haiti at 15. At around that young age, his first piece of art was bought by a museum in Iowa and thus his art career started. 

He has works all over the world—in European museums, in Latin American ones, and in the United States. He currently lives and works out of Little Haiti. He was very welcoming to us Duke students because he had worked at Duke for about a semester as the head of the Haitian art department. And so today (SideBar/Blogger Interruption: This was written Tuesday when we actually had visited the artist. Yes I know today is Friday. Yes I am a little late posting this, my bad.) we were welcomed to his studio to ask him questions, hear his story and see some more of his work. 

Meeting Edouard in person and just talking to him was a unique experience. With a rich mixed accent of French, Spanish and Creole influences, he warmly welcomed us in and answered all of our questions. He laughed and joked and was very open about his experiences and work. 

The second he started talking I thought of a million questions I wanted to ask him: How did he create those sparkly pieces of art? Where did he get his inspiration? How did he plan out an exhibit? The questions kept coming, and he was willing to answer them all. I discovered that he made those beautiful pieces of art with glitter glue (he claims he has mastered the art of the childhood craft). He painted on a metal surface and had aluminum on the top, so if he “messed up” it would still shine through. He spray painted on the beautiful colors he needed and then used the most delicate hand to create each leaf, petal, tree, and flower with sparkly glitter finesse. I could stare at his work for hours and ended up spending a lot of my time just gazing at the two pieces of art from that collection that he had in his studio. He also took us into his back room, which had pieces of art he had collected from India, Africa, and Latin America. 

He was one of those people from whom I felt like I could learn a great breadth of information, and I was disappointed that we only had an hour or so with him. He made us promise to come back to share our stories from our summer with him so that we could do some of the talking, and I really do hope we get to see him again.