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Duke Immerse Students Transformed by Immersive Experience

Students in Professors Kerry Haynie and Ralph Lawrence’s fall 2017 Duke Immerse program discuss the life-changing semester they spent traveling to different cities learning about urban governance and structural inequality.
DukeImmerse students in South Africa with a women’s microfinance collective, 2017.

By the year 2050, approximately 7 billion people will be living in cities worldwide.  This makes it imperative that we not only think about how best to plan and build urban centers in terms of physical features and infrastructure, but that we also pay attention to how inhabitants interact and coexist in these environments, and how politics and public policy can significantly affect these human interactions.

The Governance, Policy, and Society Duke Immerse program (GPS) is a research-intensive semester-long examination of politics, policymaking, and social interactions in urban settings. GPS uses 3 U.S. cities, Atlanta, New Orleans and Durham, and two cities in South Africa, Durban and Pietermaritzburg, as case studies and sites for student fieldwork. In both the U.S. and South Africa, racial and class divisions and group-based disparities remain prominent features of the urban landscape, despite the formal barriers of segregation having come down, sixty years ago in the U.S., and two-and-a-half decades ago in South Africa. The persistence of these various divisions and disparities has serious implications for community cohesion, race relations, public health, education, and general economic and social development.

Along with these topics, GPS Duke Immerse participants examine issues such as gentrification, urban redevelopment, economic mobility, zoning, public safety enforcement, public-private initiatives, tourism and leisure, and political decision-making. An underlying premise of GPS is that comparative analyses provide an opportunity for expanding knowledge and understanding of patterns of social and economic deprivation. Such analyses also have the potential of suggesting policy reforms and prescriptions that could contribute to more cooperative group relations and enhanced opportunities for all to have a fair chance at significant positive economic mobility.

Here, students in the course discuss their experiences.

What was the most different about this Duke Immerse semester than a “typical” Duke semester?

Tionne Barmer: I think something that’s great is that we have all four classes together and with the same professors so I think you definitely get to know everyone on a personal basis. You get to benefit from that group dynamic, which is really nice because we can all bond over doing the work or traveling or living together when we were in New Orleans or when we were in South Africa, so I think that part was very nice.

Donovan Bendana: I think what’s most unique about this semester is all of us are really interested in the topics and the issues that we’re learning about and it’s not “Oh, I’m taking this class as a requirement” or “I’m not really interested in this, I’m just trying to fill an arts credit” or something like that. But with this program, everyone’s really interested in the topics and really engaged and it pushes me, at least, to learn more and do better in the class.

Kevin Solomon: I also really like how this program is structured on the same theme. Like we looked at the same topics that are all very similar about urban politics, about urban affairs. So as in a regular or typical semester, I would take statistics and English and maybe a political science course — I’d have a very eclectic range of courses. And this program I get to really focus and dive into a topic like gentrification or transportation policy. And that’s really unique and, rather than just getting the broad outlines, you really get to see it and understand it.

For example, I get to see how transportation connects to affordable housing and I get to see how that compares in the United States and in South Africa. Whereas, in another class, if it’s just a regular semester, I might just learn about one topic and then we’ll go to the next topic and not really see the connections and draw comparisons.


Alycia Parker: I think this semester has been a lot different for me because I’m also taking another class with this class in order to keep track with my Arabic major. So it’s been a little difficult for me especially with going on our trips for three whole weeks of the semester. But I think it’s definitely do-able and it has been extremely interesting to be in this group of people and to be able to learn about a theme, and then go into the field and do work. I feel like that’s so much different than the standard class you’d have at Duke. You can learn about these same concepts in class but you wouldn’t necessarily be conducting interviews learning about spacial intake in the same way as seeing it. I think it makes it a lot more real and tangible to what we’re learning.

The four courses in this Duke Immerse program focused on governance, public policy, and social interactions in cities and urban neighborhoods. If someone was to ask you what, if anything, about these topics is of any general societal concern or significance, what would your answer be?

Kyra Exterovich-Rubin: I think I’m still thinking about the last book we just read which was really, really important to me. We just read “Behind the White Picket Fence,”[written by Sarah Mayorga-Gallo, a 2012 Duke sociology alum] talking about the hypocrisy of progressive ideologies and how there’s a hypocrisy between those ideologies and how they manifest in social interactions in terms of racial integration. And I think that’s important right now especially for college campuses where we live in these very literal bubbles and we don’t always feel a personal mandate to enact these values in how we live our lives.

Tionne: I think, for me, I’ve taken a lot of economics classes at Duke and I think just generally the amount of inequality that’s present even in the United States has been staggering — and it’s increasing year by year. We’ve seen that very much throughout the course. In looking at some of the things we saw in New Orleans and Atlanta, and to compare those things in a country like South Africa, which has a history of apartheid and gender inequality, we noticed that these two countries are kind of similar and have a lot of connections. It really just places a light behind the fact that there is a lot of inequality here right now on the ground.

The class trips to Atlanta, New Orleans, Pietermaritzburg, and Durban are described as fieldwork trips. How did they relate to the rest of your classes and coursework? How did they contribute or enhance your learning?

Donovan: We would have class for about– maybe more like a field trip — for around 3-4 hours everyday, usually in the morning. And what was great about these trips is that we had a lot of free time in the afternoon. I think Professor Haynie was really adamant about making sure we had time to really explore the cities, both in Atlanta and New Orleans and in South Africa, ourselves and often when we were just alone, that’s when we started to realize things we read about. It was really interesting.

Kyra: In terms of the research we were doing, we looked at websites like Trulia that people actually look at in terms of how they buy homes. There are ratings for crime and educational attainment and those are things that people use to make their everyday decisions about where they want to live. And they will actually analyze those statistics and it’ll kind of be indicators of an impoverished neighborhood.


Erin McDermott: I think we used a lot of the skills we gained through class on the trips. When we were visiting different neighborhoods, we could see how structural inequality, for example, plays out. Each researcher came to these conclusions because we were actually seeing the neighborhood itself. And even that happened a lot in retrospect, where we’ll talk about something in class and be like ‘Oh, we actually noticed that in New Orleans’ or ‘we noticed that in Atlanta’. So it was a unique experience, as far as drawing upon what we learn in class. We actually saw the real-world applications form.

How did you learn about the program?

Donovan: I was actually in another class with Duke political science professor Ashley Jardina — Minorities in American Politics. I really enjoyed it. I actually didn’t apply for the program until very early May. I had already registered for classes, but when I was registering for classes I was trying to find more classes on minority politics. And I wasn’t very successful. But then I stumbled upon Duke Immerse and I saw ‘Wow, four of these are minority politics classes.’ It’s perfect– so I told Spencer and we both applied.

Are there things you learned from these trips that you couldn’t get from reading and audio-visual materials?

Josh Podl: I think for me in particular, we read a lot. The trip to New Orleans was very eye-opening for me because we read a lot about Hurricane Katrina and what’s happened after that and we read a lot about efforts to revitalize New Orleans. But, I don’t think you get the whole picture about what areas are being rebuilt and what areas are being neglected. And we definitely saw that when we were in the 9th Ward. We were in this development neighborhood, in these areas that seem like they really haven’t been touched since Katrina. There’s so many abandoned houses, vegetation that’s just growing like crazy, porches you can still see from the remains of houses, the roads were extremely bumpy. And then we go to more, maybe middle class, or more affluent neighborhoods in New Orleans where everything looks pretty much normal and you would have no clue that a huge natural disaster had hit. So, it’s just crazy. You don’t really get the picture of where the money is going to and who’s really being helped.

Donovan: Even for me, I’m actually from New Orleans. So that was part of the reason why I wanted to take this class. I’ve lived there my whole life and I would think ‘Oh I know about New Orleans and its racial inequality issues,’ but no. Taking this class I was still learning about new aspects of New Orleans that I had never known before.

Even just going to the 9th Ward, I realized that I don’t go to the 9th Ward a lot– I’ve maybe only been there once, I’d just drive by it. And my group is the one that did the presentation on that neighborhood, so really delving into that neighborhood, specifically and learning about it was meaningful for me because I’ve had a very different experience with Katrina than maybe someone in the neighborhood next to me or definitely than someone from the lower 9th Ward. The experiences vary a lot based on socioeconomic experience. I was constantly learning new things about New Orleans…

Just driving through the lower 9th Ward and really seeing how like the roads were just in disarray, driving through a part of my city that looked like it was in an underdeveloped country was almost just staggering like ‘This is my home, this is where I live. And these issues are right at the forefront.’

Spencer Bandeen: On that topic, I think a lot of the neighborhoods that we saw aren’t necessarily the most tourist-y destinations, so I think you could go to New Orleans or Atlanta and you won’t have the same experience that we just did. And in South Africa, we went to Durban and Pietermaritzburg. And most of the time when people go to South Africa, or heard that we were, they’re like ‘Oh, you’re going to Cape Town or Johannesburg’. But what we were seeing was more authentic to what we’ve been learning and I think it’s more applicable.

Kyra: We read a book earlier this semester called “Evicted” which is about homelessness in Wisconsin and I’m from Wisconsin. Reading that just kind of shook me because race is not discussed in Wisconsin. Everyone has a very ‘we don’t see color’ attitude about it.

I had never really been passionate about housing as a policy issue. I’m a public policy and philosophy major and so I really care about people being able to achieve upward mobility. It’s crazy how it never really hit home for me. I never had to consider that personally. And I think driving through and just seeing boarded up windows and overgrown lawns and it’s just seeing how inaccessible it is for people to live their day-to-day lives was really striking for me and made me reconsider what is now being discussed back in my home town, my home state.

Kevin: One thing that I think is amazing about this program is that it really just pushed me to think more critically and to challenge my understandings of other cities too, not just Atlanta and New Orleans. But it makes me want to try to have a more wholesome and nuanced understanding and picture of other cities. When I go home for the break in St. Petersburg, Florida or when I go to Grand Rapids, Michigan or Chicago, Illinois the same lessons and the same way that we looked at New Orleans, Atlanta, Pietermaritzburg, Durban; I have used that lens to view other cities. I don’t just look at the romanticized part or the beautiful tourist attractions, I look at the good and the bad, too.

Duke Immerse students with Rev. Winston Jackson, who provided a tour of his neighborhood in the Mooi River community, 2017.

Now that you’ve had this experience, what are some of the questions you ask yourself when visiting new cities?

Kevin: For instance, one of things I ask is: Downtown is where everybody seems to be, it’s where all the activity is, it’s where the entertainment is, where the economic employment opportunities are– but what about somebody who lives five miles out? Is there a place that they can go? Or do they have to come all the way downtown every time? And so just asking ‘why do people occupy these places and how does that affect their interactions and experiences?’ is definitely something that this program has encouraged me to think about.

Spencer: One of the things I learned, especially when we visited New Orleans and Atlanta, is just how very unique the history of race relations in America is and how it still plays out today and how desegregation still hasn’t occurred. And I think as the public image of America is so different than what we’ve been learning about and how the issues really are. In a sense, this was eye opening because a lot of what we’re doing is pertaining to current events– I mean they’re happening. We were looking, in the beginning of this year, at how some of these statues are being taken down, the riots surrounding the protests in Charlottesville. It seems very relevant to be taking the course, especially this semester.

Kevin: I think another really cool aspect to the program is that not only do we get to understand the United States and South Africa, but the lessons that we learned are intended to be extended beyond to other countries too. Just generally we learned about inequality and what shapes inequality and how everybody spirals and how it’s intertwined and just how difficult it is to try to overcome obstacles. And I think that that is a universal reality, that’s not something that’s just true in the United States and South Africa. So if I study abroad next year and I’m in Europe, or I was in Ecuador last summer– like a lot of the same things that I saw in Ecuador are also true here and will be true if I study abroad somewhere else.

Do you think the Duke immerse experience will have any lasting effects on the rest of your Duke academic career, and what you will do after Duke? If so, how or in what ways?

Kevin: I think one of the biggest impacts that this had on me for my college career is that I was considering whether or not I wanted to work or do an internship over the summer that’s in the United States, or if I was going to try to go abroad and get university funding. And I think one thing I would say is that this program really opened up my eyes to see that there are real problems here in the United States and we’re addressing it in a manner where they can be very much overlooked. And I think this program really made it feel more important or urgent to be doing work here in the United States, even though there are so many problems that are going on elsewhere.

Donovan: I’m an International and Comparative Studies major and this course has changed my plan– I was going to concentrate in Europe but this course has changed me to concentrate in Africa because of our experiences in South Africa.

Kevin: I am now doing a minor in African and African American Studies that I wouldn’t have done otherwise.

Tionne: I’m a senior so [my plans haven’t changed or anything like that] realistically. The thing for me– and this is kind of cheesy and I’m not really that type of person – but when we were in South Africa I remember this particular experience: we were in one of the local neighborhoods talking to one of the guys who was giving the tour, he was a pastor in that neighborhood, and he was talking about the violence and the poverty and the trauma, the general lack of economic mobility that the community faced.

And we read about these things in school, you know, we read about them in the papers, and it’s all good and then we go back to our dorms, we go back to our $70,000/yr school.

I think, when we went to that community, it was a very emotional experience for me and one that I’ll remember just because he talked about how, even after all the things they faced, after their family members were killed and all these things, they were still able to rebuild everything they had and just build up from the ground up. And you can see how they just kind of started off just having mud homes– people were trying to build their homes until they were actual real structures. I think that is just something I carried with me. Even when I’m thinking about ‘Oh I can’t do this’ or something, there’s people who are building from the ground up.

Kyra: Going off of that, when we went to a village– that experience was one of my favorites and I think one of the most meaningful to me on the whole trip. We sat in on this women’s self-help group for coming together to build small businesses and sell their crafts so that they can then learn the financial skills of investing and banking and things like that. And they were so grateful and happy and joyful and had this community that was so strong and colorful and that stood in such stark contrast with the gated community in Pietermaritzburg that was so wealthy and so sterile. As a community they would, I think every Monday, collectively would put in the amount which was like 20 Rand and it was like 15 women and that was all they could use and they were so happy and so optimistic.

Spencer: Two things. One of them is: Immediately following our trip, I stayed with a friend who lived in a gated community in South Carolina and having learned on the concept of private facilities and what individuals who live in gated communities can really change my perspective of them to really see how that plays out, concepts like neighborhood watch, and other things that I could then see in person. And just going off what Kyra said, we witnessed this microfinance group and, immediately after coming back from South Africa, I applied to a DukeEngage that does microfinance in India that I’ll be doing that this summer.

Alycia: When we were leaving, Kyra had left her backpack in the house and they just like came running with the backpack and I was like ‘Wow, they could have like kept this’ like they had no obligation to return it but the woman came running and I think that really just sticks with me. Welcoming us into the community, they didn’t have to do that.

Governance, Policy, and Society is led by Professors Kerry Haynie and Ralph Lawrence. For more information on this program visit: http://dukeimmersegovpolicysociety.strikingly.com.

This story also appeared on Duke Today.