“You’ll be the only economist that can sing Bach arias,” my high school voice teacher quipped when I decided to attend Duke to study Economics. While that might not have come to fruition, I have found a valuable way to combine my interests for the social sciences and the arts. As I reflect in the midst of my third year of research on El Sistema USA, I feel fortunate to be taking my extracurricular passion, music, and merging it with my quantitative Economics background, all with the intention to give the next generation of students the tools to succeed.
El Sistema USA (ESUSA) is an emerging nonprofit whose mission is “to support and grow a nationwide movement of programs inspired by El Sistema to effect social change through music for children with the fewest resources and the greatest need.”
Growing up, music was an important part of my life, developing confidence through piano and voice lessons and finding joy and community through my school’s choir. When I began volunteering with an El Sistema USA member program while in high school in Vienna, VA, I instantly recognized the importance of ESUSA’s work in ensuring everyone has access to the joyful and impactful music education I had been fortunate enough to experience.
In my “Why Duke?” admissions essay, I wrote about two main topics: my interest in the interdisciplinary social sciences and the opportunities for pursuing my passion for music at Duke and in Durham (specifically with the ESUSA member Kidznotes). Duke has provided these opportunities and beyond. Through my Economics 201 professor, Dr. Nechyba, I became involved in a research team at Duke’s Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) my freshman year, working on a study of ESUSA funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. As I was beginning my research journey, ESUSA was forming a partnership with Duke University, resulting in a Bass Connections team for 2017-2018.
While my studies in Economics and Psychology have helped me ask questions and think critically about data, Bass Connections was my first avenue for applying my knowledge in a tangible and impactful setting. My Bass Connections team, ESUSA and Duke: Advancing the Power of Music for Human Development, redesigned ESUSA’s annual census survey, defined their membership criteria and planned their first official national symposium. The goal of the redesigned census was to better collect high quality data on ESUSA’s member organizations and, as a result, quantify the social change that their members inspire on a daily basis. The national symposium on Duke’s campus brought together program leaders, teaching artists and students and challenged them to increase their impact in their home communities.
All along, the team brought a wide range of perspectives. My team was led by Lorrie Schmid and Menna Mburi from SSRI, who approached our project through a research lens, and Katie Wyatt, the Executive Director of ESUSA, who brought an arts and entrepreneurial perspective. Our team was comprised of graduate and undergraduate students with different majors and strengths, united through a passion for ESUSA’s mission. Through this interdisciplinary model, our team’s work brought me unique experiences and personal growth.
Among the most meaningful aspects of my Bass Connections experience was seeing the effect of our work and showcasing our research to the broader community. It was exciting to highlight our impact and present our research to ESUSA program members at the national ESUSA symposium, to Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter, and to university leaders and Duke community members at EHDx and the Bass Connections Showcase.
My Bass Connections experience sparked my curiosity for further research into El Sistema USA. As I learned more and talked with program leaders and board members, it became clear that these programs, while united by a common goal, were often very different from one another. Through an independent study this year (with a goal of a senior honors thesis next year), I am exploring explanations for ESUSA’s organizational diversity. Using the data from ESUSA’s latest census survey that I helped design in my Bass Connections project, I aim to explain this variation with an eye towards nonprofit finances and programming. While I am gaining this valuable experience, I hope to come up with a framework that will help ESUSA members optimize their resources in order to foster the next generation of entrepreneurs, orchestra members, doctors, teachers, lawyers and maybe even some opera-singing economists.