Duke students in Durham: ‘There’s not a culture of caring’

Duke students in Durham: ‘There’s not a culture of caring’

A look into one Duke graduate's experience building a relationship with Durham both as a student and now as a community member.

Duke and Durham have a historically rocky relationship, starting when the university first moved to the Bull City in 1892 as Trinity College. More recently, the university has begun embracing the culture of Durham, but oftentimes there is still tension between the community and campus.

Meaghan Kachadoorian graduated from Duke in 2016 with a B.A. in history. Since then, she has been a teacher at the Montessori Farm School and a volunteer with the Prison Books Collective, which sends books to people in prisons in North Carolina and Alabama.

We asked Meaghan about her experience building a relationship with Durham both as a Duke student and now as a community member. Here’s what she had to say.

Julia Donheiser: How did you first get involved in the Durham community?

Meaghan Kachadoorian: As a freshman coming into college, I thought it was kind of strange that every student in Education 101 had to tutor in Durham — spending six hours a week with kids and then up and leaving at the end of the semester. But it ended up being awesome.

Duke students provided a strong service for these kids, since when it came to 3 p.m. and most of their parents were still at work, they needed people who were fresh and ready in a way that teachers already working 60 hours a week just couldn’t be. That’s one of the most positive examples of Duke students doing stuff in Durham — just being there to help kids with their homework. I was really surprised by that. I thought, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t be so critical.”

JD: What sort of culture do you think exists at Duke when it comes to community engagement?

MK: I was so underwhelmed with the conversations I was hearing as a student, in that they were just not compassionate and not at all having the interest of other human beings in mind, let alone the interest of Durham in mind.  There’s not a culture of caring about where you are. A lot of people here don’t see college as a place to become an awakened citizen of your community. Whereas for a lot of other places and people, college is the opportunity to have a better ideological framework for the passionate feelings you have about society. I don’t think that’s the case at Duke.

JD: Do you think there are a lot of assumptions made about the Durham community among undergraduates who might be taking an interest in it, but aren’t getting involved in hands on work?

MK: A lot of times, the Durham community can become a set of statistics within somebody’s research as opposed to there being a reciprocal relationship. Most people see stark inequality, which is true, but without recognizing the inherent resources of the community in Durham that go back really far and create a lot of positive change all the time. It’s the framing of someone’s experience — whether you’re invited and able to participate in a community project versus you’re in this position of power now as a student, you need to go out and study this, and then maybe we can come back in the classroom and devise a solution that we could think about putting into policy. It’s a different perspective.

JD: Were there any preconceived notions of Durham that got shattered by your experience working with students from the community?

MK: I had no sense that Duke was in such a vibrant community. It’s definitely changed since I was a freshman, but I don’t remember Duke ever marketing that it was blessed by being in a place with such a strong community and fascinating history and amazing community groups. That wasn’t the sense I got when I came here. It was, “Stay within the walls, and the only thing we’re going to tell you about Durham is how to keep yourself safe.”

JD: Is that changing at all?

MK: I think so. I definitely see more students on Ninth Street than when I was a freshman. It’s also “safer,” in that I would assume there’s less crime in the immediate outskirts of East Campus.

JD: Duke has historically isolated itself from Durham. As someone who’s now a resident of the community and fairly involved, are there any points of tension that arise from the fact that you graduated from Duke?

MK: I am always fascinated by how many people have connections to Duke. It’s the largest employer in Durham. I’m really surprised by how many people work here, have family who have worked here, or are just fans — the Duke sports culture in Durham is really strong.

I also think a lot of people don’t understand what’s going on with the student body, which can be confusing. One of the volunteers at Prison Books is an Uber driver, and he said that since driving for Uber, his mind has been blown by the student culture and extreme wealth he didn’t know was actually there. He was really surprised by the overwhelming sense of wealth that students walk around with.

There’s some level where, when you’re a college student, and you have that title, at any space you go to in the community you are that, you are a Duke student and you are from the campus. That was probably the most refreshing part of graduating — that when I moved through the community, I didn’t have to hold that anymore. I’ll always have the connection to the identity of a Duke student, and I will always hold that privilege, but I don’t have to be a current undergraduate, and I think that can discolor a lot of spaces that you enter.

JD: What can students do to better understand the history and workings of Durham beyond Ninth Street and other, more gentrified parts of the city?

MK: Duke students are comfortable being consumers in places that look like where they’re from, which is why, in my opinion, Ninth Street looks the way it does now versus how it did five or six years ago. The whole luxury apartment scene began while I was [a student] and totally changed the way people perceived living off campus. There was no Panera Bread. Harris Teeter wasn’t even there — it was a field where people played soccer and watched the sunset.

I don’t know if I would blame Duke students. In a lot of ways, it’s the role of the university to do a better job at encouraging engagement. But there are a lot of things that Duke students can do. There are so many community groups that need volunteers or need donations or monetary help. But from working with Prison Books, I know that Duke students aren’t even a group that we tap into. My opinion is that people wouldn’t even really engage in a deep way and want to keep coming back, and I don’t know that the students would really show up or care.

JD: Why do you think that is?

MK: I took a semester off from Duke and went to Berkeley, which was incredibly different. It does happen to be a public school with an engaged student body and off-campus community, but the flow of people on to and off of campus was so much more visible. The new parking deck is indicative of that: Employees park there and then take a shuttle onto campus. There are so many back alleys that the flow of people coming onto Duke and off of Duke take. We don’t see those people, and we don’t engage with them in general.

JD: What would be your advice to a student who is looking to further engage with the community both on campus and in Durham?

MK: Duke has a way of bringing in really passionate people and dulling their passion over time with stress, or the institutionalization of knowledge, or whatever it is. But early on, [Duke should] encourage people to use whatever passion they have and to look at the community to see what’s being done, and to ask groups, “How can I help you?” or “How can I learn from you, how can I be part of this?”

The opportunities do exist. Duke has an entire class dedicated to Pauli Murray, and Bruce Orenstein teaches a video for social change class. There are specific people who have taken it among themselves to bear the weight of getting Duke students to understand the power in Durham and the beauty of this place and its history. I see some professors doing exactly that — professors working with community groups to get their students involved — but I don’t see that institutionally implemented.

I think the best thing you can be in this town is open-minded and a good listener. People have been here a really long time and really understand the community so much better than we ever could in four years. Learning and listening to them is really important.

Julia Donheiser
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