A new "ethical leadership" program combines the thrill of the (scavenger) hunt with community-service projects to introduce first-year students to their new hometown.
Twenty students form three small huddles on the patio behind the main branch of the Durham Public Library, eagerly awaiting instructions.
Having just finished lunch, they know that they will be taking part in something called the "Explore Durham Challenge," a scavenger hunt of sorts, but as of yet, they've received few details.
In fact, the past few days have been a blur. Two days ago, these first-years arrived on campus for the first day of Project Change, Duke's newest week-long, pre-orientation program. Co-sponsored by the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Women's Center, the experience was billed as "The Amazing Race Meets Oprah's Big Give." For those unfamiliar with those popular television shows, that description suggests a series of competitive team "challenges" paired with a community-service project.
All twenty students are wearing blue T-shirts emblazoned with an inspirational quote from psychologist-philosopher William James, a motto of sorts for the program. "To change one's life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions."
After delivering a few brief instructions, Ada Gregory, director of the Women's Center and co-director of Project Change, hands each group a rolled-up sheet of orange paper.
The members of one team, "Team ARC" (which, they say, stands for affinity, reality, and communication), unroll their sheet and are greeted by a series of numbers, which they quickly identify as a simple code, with each number corresponding to a letter.
Soon, a message appears: Google Lucky Strike Tower.
Presumably, whoever wrote the clues hoped that this one might be obscure enough to require a trip back to the library's computer cluster. But several of the students, having just taken a tour of downtown earlier in the day, bolt in the general direction of the American Tobacco Campus, a group of red-brick warehouses renovated and repurposed as office, residential, and commercial space. A water tower emblazoned with the Lucky Strike logo stands at the campus' north end.
The leaders make their way down Roxboro Street at a run, looking both ways (sort of) and crossing the road where it passes under the train tracks just past Ramseur Street.
A group of followers turns a block early, and walk-runs down Ramseur. Julius Jones, team leader for "Julius and the Phunky Phive," drops the valuable downtown map halfway down the block, but before he has time to get it, the lead team emerges from around a corner a block ahead, and he gives chase. A teammate returns for the map.
When the students reach the American Tobacco Campus, they at first have trouble figuring out how to get to the courtyard. They circle around, finding the north entrance, and fan out, trying to figure out where the next clue might be hidden.
After several moments, Gregory comes walking into the courtyard, shaking her head. "How did you guys get here so fast?" she asks, handing over the next clue.
The clues lead the group through downtown Durham, past major sights like the Durham Bulls Athletic Park to lesser-known local treasures like Locopops (a local gourmet popsicle shop, where they must finish a Mexican-chocolate-flavored concoction in order to see their next clue), a popular used-book store, and the farmers' market; and by the large, block-lettered "We want Oprah!!!" sign that has graced the window of a downtown building for more than three years, pleading for a visit from the popular talk-show host while at the same time becoming a sort of quirky Durham landmark.
"From the get-go, we want [the students] to build an understanding and appreciation of Durham," explains Suzanne Shanahan, associate director of the Kenan Institute and co-director of Project Change. "We don't want them spending four years trying to find downtown."
Of course, the program is more than just a glorified city tour. It is an effort to encourage students to bond and develop friendships as they serve their community and learn about "ethical leadership."
Throughout the week, students will collaborate with local nonprofit organizations to plan and complete short-term service projects, each with a $1,000 budget, to be stretched and supplemented by soliciting donations in the form of money and materials. One group will work with Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers (TROSA), a program aimed at rehabilitating substance abusers, to build a fence and a patio behind one of its houses. Another will purchase educational materials and software for the children living at Genesis Home, a transitional shelter for homeless families, as well as creating a scholarship fund for foster children. The third will work with leaders at El Centro Hispano, a grassroots community group dedicated to strengthening the local Latino community, to develop arts programming for young people and plan a trip to the El Greco exhibit at the Nasher Museum of Art for later in the semester.
The aim of all three projects, Shanahan says, is to help students "develop a real sense of attachment and responsibility to Durham as their home," to convey the message that "being a leader is about participating collectively toward the goals of your community." Afterward, Robbie Curtis, one of several members of Team ARC who continue to volunteer at Genesis Home as after-school tutors, would describe the project as having changed his idea of effective leadership. "I learned that you need to be really collaborative for people to respect your views," he said. "A leader isn't just someone who gives orders."
These overarching ideas are not unique to the organizers of Project Change. Increasingly, Duke administrators have taken steps to make first-year students feel comfortable not just on campus, but also in the surrounding community. In recent years, the regular orientation week has featured trips to Durham Bulls games, dinner downtown, and an "Into the City" program that includes an option to participate in a one-day service project or join a faculty member on a tour of a local museum, neighborhood, or park.
But Project Change represents a longer, more intensive approach. Students have a full week to bond over their introduction—and service—to Durham.
The program is also intensive in another, more modern sense. Students were instructed not to bring laptop computers for the week, and after much discussion, organizers decided at the last minute to confiscate students' cell phones for the duration of the program. "We wanted them to cohere as a group," Shanahan explains. "Constant cell-phone calls and texting were not part of the vision."
However, members of teams that win challenges are occasionally granted five minutes of cell-phone time as a prize.
In its first year, the program has already proven a popular alternative to the three existing pre-orientation programs: Project WILD, a wilderness trip; Project BUILD, a community-service program; and Project Waves, based at the Duke Marine Lab. There were more than 300 applicants for twenty-one spots, filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Many participants speak enthusiastically about getting to know Durham and their classmates. Plus, Curtis says with a grin, "it's free." (The other pre-orientation programs range in cost from $375 to $475.)
At the end of the day, Team ARC finishes the race in first place, having taken the fewest wrong turns on the way from the farmers' market (the second-to-last stop) to the finish line at Genesis Home. This is the first challenge that they've won, and they're ecstatic. They pose for a few photos, mugging for the camera with big smiles and goofy high-fives, then hop in a van driven by the program's organizers in an effort to avoid a light rain and to trick the second-place team into thinking it finished first.
Later in the evening, they will join the others to prepare a dinner for residents of Genesis Home, but for now, they can revel in their victory. They may even get to make a phone call.
They pause for a moment, trying to decide whether that's a good thing. After just two days, they're already able to concede that there are certain benefits to a cell-phone-free week. "Imagine trying to explain to your family what we're doing," one young woman says, shaking her head. "It could take all day."