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During my first drive through Orange County, California, I thought about how the landscape was familiar – but not. At my home in Jacksonville, Florida, we had similar palm trees and convoluted freeways, but the horizon didn’t hold the golden hills and elevation that surprised me in California. The same feeling was reflected throughout my first week of DukeEngage.

On Monday, after our first day at Girls Inc, we visited some Duke alumni to learn more about life in Orange County. In their beautiful house on the coast, we heard about the experiences of homeless and low-income residents of Orange County, particularly those of students. This immediately struck me as very familiar to what I had seen while living in Jacksonville and attending a high school where over 55% of the student population qualified for the free lunch program – but also different. We heard about how in California, almost 1 in 5 community college students have experienced homelessness, and about how families struggle to live in expensive areas like Orange County, where some of the country’s richest people also reside, because of the opportunities for jobs and good schools for their children. In just a few weeks, my cohort and I will begin working at the Girls Inc Eureka! camp, which targets girls who may be going through exactly these experiences.

Our first week at Girls Inc consisted of training for Eureka. Our roles are going to include both the regular job of summer camp staff and the position of “facilitator” for various lessons. Eureka is a STEM summer camp, but it also has the goal of targeting the “whole girl” through well-rounded lessons that include everything from leadership skills to learning what healthy relationships look like to fun summer camp and team-building activities. Throughout the week, we learned that “facilitating” rather than teaching a lesson means letting the girls learn a topic by themselves through activities and hands-on experiences, and that our classroom management should include positive reinforcement rather than punishment. I really appreciate that Eureka is choosing to structure its camp this way. Working with kids always has the added stress element that everything you say and do will affect the way they learn and grow up, and Eureka is definitely setting its girls up to be learners and problem solvers.

It has only been a week, but it feels like we have come pretty far. I am really happy that my cohort has been bonding well, both among ourselves and with the other facilitators we will be working with at Eureka. As the song we wrote for the first day of camp goes, I think we are almost ready for “all the empowered girls who are trying to break through.”