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Working with Girls Incorporated (Girls, Inc.) of Orange County, Calif., DukeEngage Orange County students teach at a four-week, STEM-focused summer camp serving at-risk and underserved girls. Emma Huang writes about how she learned to think of herself as a teacher during her summer with DukeEngage, and how she hopes that her students will carry forward what they learned from her.

I’ve heard a lot about Duke Engage. Good and bad and in between and neither. Many of the people I talked to loved it, with one common complaint: they were thrown into their work the minute they got there. So while maybe not as immediate and important as the program mission, getting to know who they were living and working with took a backseat; it became a much more gradual process. And suddenly it was the last week and they were only just getting to really know the other interns and then it was time to go home and they wish they still had more time.

And so I’m grateful for Duke Engage Orange County. The seven of us spent the first three weeks attending training for the main star of the program: a four-week STEM girls camp where we were the teachers. I loved the schedule – that the long ten-hour days started a few weeks in, that I had a chance to build a community with my program members before the hardest work began, that I could understand how their learning and teaching styles worked with mine before anything else. Aside from training, we spent the time getting on the wrong trains to downtown LA, going to the San Diego Zoo, watching the Fourth of July fireworks in Huntington, listening to “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” and deeming our scary-looking group car the “murder van.” And in it, we became a team before we had to.

A group of young people walk down a city street in a photograph shot from behind them. Two wear women's empowerment t-shirts with the prominent words "strong" and "bold."
DukeEngage Orange County students walk down the street during their morning commute.

And then camp began. During our last reflection before camp, all of us expressed two emotions and two emotions only: we were excited. We were nervous. I’m only twenty years old. How was I to teach an entire classroom full of teenage girls? During training, we were warned that the girls would be shy at first, and that we would have to work to fill the silence in that first week. What would we do when no one raised their hand for a question we asked? What would we do when someone did and we didn’t know the answer?

It’s now the end of the first week. And the Girls Inc (the program the camp is run through) staff were almost right; most of the girls were quiet – for the first hour. And as the days progressed, it was so rewarding to watch even the quietest ones find friends with similar interests, begin to raise their hands, and talk to us unprompted. On the first day during an icebreaker, I remember a girl standing in the corner alone while most other girls were talking to each other.

“I’m waiting for someone to come up to me,” she said.

I smiled. “Why don’t you go up to someone instead?”

“I can’t do that,” she said. “I’m scared.”

Yesterday, at the end of the first week, we went on a field trip to the Orange County Fair. That girl was in the group I was supervising. And so were all of her friends.

I go to camp every day and I’m thirteen again. Standing at the front of the room where I can see everyone’s faces, I feel my old self looking back at me. I talk to some of the girls and it’s almost second nature for me to remember who I was when I was their age, when I was in middle school, and going to summer camps, and trying to find the way I fit within the world. It’s an incredible feeling then, being able to be who I wish I had back then. I throw fun facts into our lessons, and they actually remember them – just like how there are little bits of information that I’ve picked up from my summer camp counselors throughout my life that I still hold on to. Did you know mantis shrimp have sixteen color cones in their eyes while humans only have three? One of my teachers told me that my summer after eighth grade. I told them that last Tuesday.

And now we’re halfway through the program. We’re one week into camp. I only have fifteen more days with these girls. Twenty-eight more with my program members. And yet I still feel like I’ve barely even begun. The camp days are long and tiring, but fulfilling in a way that makes thirteen-year-old me proud; every lesson, I find myself hoping that someone – anyone – in the classroom will remember something I’ve said. And although we aren’t anywhere near the end of our time here in California, I know, come time, it’ll feel like the close of something monumental.

But I’d like to keep this in mind too: that, come time, it’ll also be the start of something even larger than what we’ve done here in eight weeks. That the things we’ve taught, the way we’ve done it, the advice we’ve given – they’re all a part of someone else now. Someone who’s still growing, just like ourselves. That, come time, it might all turn full-circle one day: that one day, they might also be twenty years old, and in my spot now, and remembering what it was like to be thirteen, and scared, and learning. That they’ll have something to teach too.