Learning through Teaching

Learning through Teaching

In his classes at Duke University, David Liu tackles problems in multivariable calculus. He studies circuit analysis. He builds robots.

But this summer, as a teacher with Freedom School Partners in Charlotte, he learned from 10 year olds. As David helped his scholars sharpen their reading skills, they taught him a few things about patience, and what it means to be an adult.

The experience was thanks to DukeEngage, a program that supports Duke students in volunteer service around the world. Since it was launched in 2007 with $30 million of support from The Duke Endowment and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, DukeEngage has enriched the undergraduate program for more than 2,000 participants.

In Charlotte this summer, three DukeEngage students worked as Servant Leader Interns for Freedom School Partners, along with undergraduates from other colleges across the Southeast.

“Interns like David make a real difference in the lives of children,” says Mary Nell McPherson, head of Freedom School Partners. “And these children make a real difference in the lives of our interns.”

David is an earnest 19-year-old from a remote village in China. He has a bright smile that fills his face. He wears glasses that tend to slide down his nose. He’s majoring in math and computer engineering, but he dreams of working with at-risk students as a teacher.

“DukeEngage gives undergraduates the opportunity to devote themselves to the social issues they are passionate about,” he says. “For me, the social issue is education.”

He turned down a coveted internet internship for his summer of service. Instead of hobnobbing with technology gurus, he signed on for six weeks with energetic kids. Instead of designing computer programs, he wrote lesson plans. Instead of reading code, he read chapter books.

David went through 112 hours of training before arriving at Druid Hills Academy as Mr. David. After his scholars spilled out from yellow school buses, it didn’t take him long to learn that teaching is exhausting.

Each day, he ate breakfast with his students in the cafeteria, then sang and danced with them in a morning gathering called Harambee. In his classroom, he perched on a kid-sized plastic chair, his long legs bent at right angles from his knees. He led his students in reading aloud, and coached them in plot points and themes. He chaperoned field trips to bowling alleys and museums.

At Duke, David feels great if his robot works; fantastic if he cracks a tough math problem. But the sense of accomplishment he felt this summer was different.

“When my students started giving me positive feedback, I just felt ecstatic. For some of them, it was very easy for them to give up. They’d say, ‘I don’t want to do this. I can’t do this.’ But I very soon realized that I couldn’t give up. This is what I had committed myself to. Even though it was really hard, I had to set the example as an adult and keep going."

“Probably, this has been the most difficult thing I have ever done,” he says. “But it opened a whole new world.”

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