Taking the Bull City by the Horns

March 16, 2023

How three students engaged with the Durham community through Bass Connections

By Sarah Grace Engel, M.T.S., Program Coordinator, Bass Connections

Every Bass Connections project addresses a tough issue — whether it’s plastic pollution, voting rights or cancer care — that matters to the world. Three quarters of teams work with community partners to address these issues, whether in the Triangle or across the globe. These students’ Bass Connections experiences centered on community engagement right here in the Bull City.

Team posing together.
Members of the Strengthening Partnerships between Durham Public Schools and Local Universities (2021-2022) team pose with the “Bull City” hand gesture. Photo: courtesy of project team

Strengthening Partnerships in Education

Jasmine Daniel headshot.When Jasmine Daniel became a Blue Devil, she immediately began to notice the complex relationship between Duke and Durham. “From my first day in the Bull City, I recognized that Duke had the capacity to influence surrounding communities in ways I could not fully understand.”

She was already interested in research, community engagement and education, having participated in the Knowledge in the Service of Society (KISS) FOCUS cluster as a first year, so when she heard about a Bass Connections team that was strengthening university-community relationships through deep engagement with the Durham Public Schools system, she recognized an exciting opportunity to dig in.

Three students on stage making a presentation.
Jasmine Daniel (right) presents a lightning talk with her teammates at the 2022 Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Showcase. Photo: John West/Trinity Communications

“Education became the path through which I connected with Durham.”

This long-running Bass Connections project, a collaboration between Duke and North Carolina Central University, works from the model of community schooling — positioning schools as hubs for meeting various public needs. Jasmine’s subteam focused on assessing the health needs of the communities surrounding Durham’s public schools.

“Our initial analysis of Durham’s school systems through a social justice lens shaped our deliverables, from a visual dashboard to an anti-racism curriculum to a health needs assessment.” The team’s work also had an impact on Daniel herself.

“My time with this team was spent building meaningful relationships and developing a strong foundation in social justice, history and research methods,” she said.

Fighting Pandemic Inequities

Caroline Palmer headshot.As a global health and public policy double major, Caroline Palmer knows that access to medical care matters. At the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, longstanding disparities in the U.S. health system became more apparent than ever.

“Within our broken healthcare system, low-income communities and people of color face many challenges in finding quality primary care, affording medical services and accessing health information.”

Instead of just reading about how the pandemic was disproportionately harming Latinx communities in Durham, Caroline joined a Bass Connections team that was partnering with those communities and related organizations to face the crisis. 

Three students standing in front of their research poster.
Palmer takes a selfie with her teammates in front of their poster at the 2022 Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Showcase.

Together, they addressed issues of equity in COVID-19 testing, primary care and vaccine distribution. Caroline helped advocate for multilingual health resources and supported the launch of testing and vaccination sites across Durham. Alongside these efforts to meet the community’s pressing needs, she also organized focus groups and analyzed qualitative data to produce infographics, academic writing and policy recommendations for the future.

Caroline now sees her time with this community-engaged team as vital preparation for her life post-Duke. “Bass Connections taught me valuable skills that I will undoubtedly employ in a health policy career. …This experience has made me a more adept and empathetic researcher and teammate and inspired me to approach challenges with curiosity and excitement.”

Setting an Example for Girls in Math

Sydney Hunt headshot.Today, Sydney Hunt is writing a thesis, about to graduate with a double major in electrical & computer engineering and computer science, and preparing to begin a Ph.D. program in electrical engineering at Stanford next year. At the beginning of her college career, however, she was so discouraged that she considered leaving the engineering discipline. The roadblock? Math.

“Math—specifically Calculus I—is the turning point for girls entering and exiting STEM. Girls’ persistence in math is a key predictor of a career in these fields. It was not until I read articles and saw the numbers on STEM retention through my Bass Connections project that I fully understood my own experience with math.”

Hunt did persist and found a key mentor in her EGR 101 professor Sophia Santillan, who encouraged Hunt to apply for her Bass Connections team, which addresses the gender gap in STEM. Through the project, Hunt connected with several other professors who would ultimately advise her on her thesis. Through it all, she hasn’t forgot the importance of encouraging girls — especially girls of color — to engage with math.

“As the team’s project manager, I oversaw many workshop activities, but one of my favorites was a math race. Each room had a different, fun math problem, and students had to solve them in order to move on to the next room. …When a student was unsure or nervous, her teammates would support her. It was beautiful to see them collaborating and cheering each other on,” she reflected.

Hunt’s future career is sure to inspire girls and women wherever she goes to see themselves in STEM, just as she and her team inspired girls in Durham.

Bass Connections team with local girls during math workshop.
Sophia Santillan (second from left) with students at a workshop in 2019. The team will resume in-person math workshops for middle school girls this summer.

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