Jacob Tobia '14

"I never let schooling get in the way of my education.” In so many ways, this quote from Mark Twain encapsulates my approach to service learning. In high school, I so often found myself frustrated with academics. As someone who plans to dedicate their life to community organizing and social justice, my work in the community was my true “education.” And while academics were an important part of my high school experience, there were times when the burden of papers, readings, and problem sets took away from the time that I could spend on community organizing and community service. Coming in to college, I thought that I would be faced with the same issue that I faced in high school—I thought that I would have to choose between my academic schooling and my education through engagement with the community.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Through engaging with the service-learning program over the past four years, I’ve learned that I don’t have to choose between the two. Through service-learning, I can have a robust academic life that is fundamentally connected to my work in the community.

My commitment to service-learning began almost as soon as I set foot on campus, when I enrolled in the Ethics, Leadership, and Global Citizenship FOCUS program. Throughout the program, we engaged with a myriad set of global ethical issues, and I enrolled in a class that specifically focused on global refugee crises. Through the course, we not only learned about the struggles faced by refugees on a macro level, we also volunteered weekly with Church World Services, a refugee resettlement organization working in Durham. That class truly transformed my understanding of service. As someone who grew up in the Triangle, I had no idea that resettled refugees from Bhutan, Cameroon, and Nigeria were living and working in Durham. Through teaching ESL classes to refugees and partnering with one local family who had recently resettled in Durham, I was able to learn a great amount about the pitfalls of the current refugee system.

Participating in service-learning that early in my Duke career had a formative impact on my educational outlook. In my mind service-learning had transformed from an optional supplement to my classes, and instead became a necessary precondition of engaged learning. Through working with local refugees at the same time as I studied refugee crises on and international level, I realized the pitfalls of a purely “academic” approach to learning. If we view communities, people, and cultures merely as “subjects” to be studied from our perch in the ivory tower, we will never be able to be truly educated. While academic engagement with refugees may have taught me about frameworks of international law and the associated treaties surrounding refugee resettlement, service learning was able to teach me the human side of the problem: I was able to see firsthand the difficulty that resettled families have providing for their children, navigating the welfare system, and finding employment, and in some small way, I was able to help a family navigate those challenges.

From my beginnings in the FOCUS program, I had become hooked on service-learning, and attempted to take service-learning classes whenever I had the chance. My second semester, I enrolled in courses associated with the Service Opportunities in Leadership Program, where we coordinated a community service project with the Raleigh-Durham chapter of the USO. Following my freshman year, as part of the SOL program, I traveled to Marion, South Carolina, conducted an oral history project in conjunction with the Marion County Museum, and produced a 32-panel exhibit in association with the BN Carolina Summer of Service. My sophomore year, I enrolled in a critical education class where we learned first-hand about the school-to-prison pipeline through partnering with the Hidden Voices project in Durham. I formed a very close friendship with the director of Hidden Voices, Lynden Harris, and later participated in the first public reading of a monologue show called “None of the Above” that highlighted the stories of students who were trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline.

In preparation for a summer of service in South Africa, I then enrolled in the Duke Immerse South Africa program, where I learned about the history of the anti-apartheid movement. This academic engagement prepared me to spend the summer in Johannesburg and Cape Town working with Sonke Gender Justice Network, an organization committed to engaging men in gender-based violence prevention efforts. When I returned from South Africa, my itch for service continued, and for my final project as part of the Duke in NY program, I was able to raise $11,000 for the Ali Forney Center, a shelter for homeless LGBT youth that had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, through running across the Brooklyn Bridge in high heels. The next semester, I participated in Tony Brown’s Organizational Leadership class, where I partnered with Patrice Nelson, the director of Urban Ministries Durham (UMD), and a team of students to produce an emergency preparedness plan for UMD.

But why did I do all of this? Why has service-learning been such an integral part of my education? Because I believe that you can never truly be educated about a community or the people in it without service. As students at Duke University, we have access to an incredible education, but along with that access comes responsibility. We have a responsibility to use our education to better the lives of those around us. While it may seem hollow at times, I firmly believe that Duke’s central mission is to use “knowledge in the service of society,” and I have done my best to ensure that I live out that mission in my own education.

Thanks to the service-learning program, my schooling hasn’t gotten in the way of my education through community service.

Jacob Tobia '14