Wendy Xiao got a taste for teaching in 2012 when she co-taught cooking classes at Lettuce Link, which ran a giving garden at Marra Farm in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood. Since graduating from Duke in 2014, she’s taught literacy and dance at a school for children with learning differences in Washington, DC. Now Wendy’s a senior program manager at Digital Promise, where she works with educators and product developers to infuse learning sciences research into their practice and products.
Why did you choose your DukeEngage program/independent project?
I appreciated the amount of choice offered by the DukeEngage-Seattle program. At the time, instead of having a central theme to the types of projects offered, we were able to choose from a number of different nonprofits with varying missions but all focused on social justice. I spent my summer as a volunteer at Lettuce Link, which threw me head first into the world of food justice and the need to provide fresh, healthy options at local food banks.
Additionally, as someone who grew up and spent all her life on the east coast, I was intrigued by the opportunity to work with communities on the other side of the country.
What are you doing now academically/professionally?
I am currently working at an education nonprofit that is committed to improving learning opportunities for all by leveraging research and technology. I have the privilege of collaborating with educators and ed-tech product developers across the country (and globe!) to infuse learning sciences research in their practice and products to support diverse learners. I also have the opportunity to apply my neuroscience degree on the regular, which is a pleasant surprise, to synthesize research and best practices on how people learn.
Did DukeEngage influence your academic or career path? If so, how?
Absolutely – while I have always worked with kids, that summer was my first glimpse into what teaching was like, which is what I did the first two years after graduating from Duke. As part of my volunteer role at Lettuce Link, I co-taught cooking classes at the farm to kids from the local Boys & Girls Club. I saw firsthand how innately curious and innovative kids are – give them green space and colorful veggies, and they can create some delicious masterpieces!
What was the most meaningful part of your DukeEngage experience (personally, academically, or professionally)?
I knew very little about food justice prior to that summer. I also grew up in the South, so when I thought of collard greens, they did not look like the vibrant, leafy greens I encountered on the farm. So, spending a summer working on an urban farm exposed me to the serious lack of access to fresh, healthy options for low-income communities. However, on a positive note, it also affirmed how little square footage it actually takes to grow a significant amount of produce for those communities.
Do you have a specific lesson learned from your DukeEngage experience that still holds true today? If so, what was it?
Because I am in education, of course I have to tie it back to the children! I would say that summer reinforced my belief that we need to give kids the space and opportunity to let loose, be creative, and explore.
Are you still connected to DukeEngage? If so, how and why?
I had the opportunity to speak at a DukeEngage event in San Francisco in the fall of 2017. Reminiscing about my DukeEngage summer and how it has informed by professional path was incredibly meaningful, and I am grateful to have had both experiences!
Do you think DukeEngage is an important program? Why or why not?
Most definitely, I certainly hope the folks at Lettuce Link and the communities they serve felt at least a fraction of the impact I walked away with.
DukeEngage pushed me out of my comfort zone – I am not typically someone who braves a torrential downpour to harvest produce – and challenged my lack of knowledge on a widespread, pressing problem. But more importantly, it also gave me a way to actually contribute to a solution to the problem.
What’s one thing you want people to know about DukeEngage—in general or about your particular experience?
It is a great way to humbly educate yourself on something that you know little to nothing about. Authentically working with and serving different communities who know much more about the issues at hand is eye-opening and takes grace. Owning that I did not know what I did not know allowed me eagerly learn from others and also take new risks.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I did a little digging and found my reflection on Lettuce Link’s blog. Rereading it seven years later, I am struck by the level of impact the summer with DukeEngage-Seattle had on me.