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When I reflect back on my last two summers, these numbers come to mind: one incredible DukeEngage support network, two highly rewarding programs, and a countless number of learning opportunities that have enriched my Duke experience.

I’ve had the pleasure of completing two DukeEngage summers, and they have been the most impactful summers of my life. After finishing an independent project last year with Atlanta Rescue Dog Café, I was eager to dive deeper into non-profit work. This summer, I was welcomed back into DukeEngage with their new Marine Lab program. As soon as I began the program in May, my Environmental Science and Policy coursework at Duke was brought to life. I was not only learning more about topics like sustainability and conservation, but actively contributing to work being done to tackle environmental issues in North Carolina. I had the incredible opportunity of working with leaders on the NC Marine Debris Action Plan as well as educators and researchers from Duke Marine Lab’s Community Science Initiative.

The NC Marine Debris Action Plan was created by various non-profit organizations to brainstorm and carry out strategies for protecting the coasts. Marine debris is one of the biggest threats to the environment, and my research this summer has further reinforced a need for change. In collaboration with two of my DukeEngage peers, I analyzed cleanup reports from the Ocean Conservancy and NOAA’s Marine Debris Tracker App. We examined thousands of data entries on marine debris cleanups from the years 2016-2021 and produced written summaries of trends. For example, cigarette butts stood out as the most littered item, and plastic made up the bulk of marine debris by material type. Another striking finding was that the coastal counties were responsible for nearly 75% of all debris reported.  Along with data analysis, we produced infographics to present this information to the public, cleaned up datasets for easier use by our community partners, and explored environmental policy implications.

My experience working with the Marine Lab’s Community Science Initiative (CSI) was equally eye-opening. CSI was designed to connect the public with scientific research and provide local schools with engaging learning opportunities. If I had to briefly sum up what I learned from CSI, it would be the value of youth empowerment. One of my DukeEngage peers and I created several infographics as well as a NOAA blog post centered on this critical idea. From our community partners’ research, we learned that when youth are supplied with the right tools, they can inspire change within their communities and beyond. For example, one of our infographics highlighted different ways educators can amplify student voices, such as through encouraging youth leadership in projects like environmental PSA videos. In addition to producing youth empowerment content, we analyzed data on CSI’s Marine Debris and Water Quality curricula, and their widespread impact throughout North Carolina schools.

Along with these two central projects, I helped facilitate three lesson plans for the Boys and Girls Club. A few of my DukeEngage peers and I designed interactive lessons on oysters, living shorelines, and marine debris for fourth and fifth-graders. Virtual learning can sometimes be difficult even for college students, so I was pleasantly surprised when the students were consistently engaged and excited about our teachings. It was inspiring to see their enthusiasm and passion for environmental change, which helped strengthen my own desire to explore a career in environmental policy.

From both my DukeEngage summers, education stands out as a powerful theme. Whether it’s teaching the public about responsible pet care, sharing facts on marine debris, or equipping kids to become environmental change-agents, education remains a common thread in tackling complex community issues. I’ve also learned that civic engagement and teamwork are at the core of sparking social impact. I will actively apply these lessons throughout my life and stay involved in non-profit work beyond this summer. My DukeEngage chapter is coming to a close, but my work with helping communities achieve their objectives is far from over.