If these questions had easy answers, there would be no need for the University of Delaware’s Summer Scholars Program, no need for its research or service-learning programs. But easy stuff isn’t what draws the sharpest minds and the biggest hearts.
They want to go where the challenges are, where problems have not been solved, where they might make a real difference.
And that’s why a record number of undergraduate students – more than 530 – participated in research and service projects this summer.
Many new faculty participated, too, said Iain Crawford, faculty director of UD’s Undergraduate Research Program and president of the national Council on Undergraduate Research.
“For a lot of faculty, especially in the sciences, they see having undergraduates in the lab as an important contribution to their own work. It adds to the quality of research in their labs,” he said. “And we have that culture firmly established at Delaware, a culture where the value of undergraduate research is strongly felt.
“We know, too, that the research tells us that active learning – when you are engaged in creating new knowledge and doing projects where you don’t know the answers going in – is one of the most powerful forms of education that there is. We see that our students are getting those kinds of experiences.”
The 10-week program includes mostly sophomores and juniors, each of whom receives a $4,000 stipend and continues their work in the next academic year.
Students will share their findings and experiences Thursday, Aug. 9 at the ninth annual grand finale – the Summer Scholars Symposium – which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Harker Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering (ISE) Laboratory.
Samantha Gibbs, who was part of the Wilmington Summer Scholars program, will be there with the rest of her team, which included two students from UD’s main campus and four from the Associate in Artsprogram. Their goal was to help the city find effective new ways to disrupt the gun violence that has ravaged its youth.
Gibbs, who was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, had worked with UD English Prof. David Teague, UD’s Community Engagement Faculty Fellow in the Associate in Arts program, on a project helping city kids write a book.
Those kids had a lot to say – and she listened.
“They couldn’t stop talking,” Gibbs said. “And listening to them I wanted to know what I could do to help them and other kids like them be the best for themselves.”
Christian Wills, a junior English major and recent graduate of the Associate in Arts program, joined the Wilmington Summer Scholars team for a similar reason.
He worked at The Warehouse Project, where more than 20 teens from high-poverty areas of Wilmington were trying to develop new programs for their age group. Recent studies have shown that only eight effective programs are available for them, compared to hundreds for younger children.
It was not smooth sailing. There was turbulence, dysfunction, frustration, fatigue and exasperation to spare. The city teens brought the sharp edges of their streets with them, their anxieties, discouragement and skepticism. They brought backstories most people know nothing about. But they brought hope, too, and the stubborn belief that things could be better and should be better. Maybe somebody would listen and something would change.
The UD students worked with mentors including Darryl Chambers and Kevin Kelley and others from Wilmington’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Safe Havens, The Dual School, The Warehouse and Play Streets Wilmington. They also worked with UD’s Kayla Baptiste of Public Allies Delaware and Roger Hesketh, director of community revitalization at UD’s Center for Community Research and Service.
It was a much tougher assignment than any of these students expected.
“I told them, ‘You’re in here because teenagers are shooting each other. And that’s chaotic,’ ” said Teague. “We’re trying to work on programming, education and support in the neighborhoods. If that stuff existed, we wouldn’t be in here trying to help solve the problem.”
What Teague saw in these six Summer Scholars as their work progressed was nothing short of tremendous.
“In all sincerity, I can say it’s the most ambitious undergraduate research project I have ever been part of,” he said. “But I got to meet the greatest people – these scholars. These students are an asset, an affirmation of all the things we’re doing in the Associate in Arts program and the engagement the University of Delaware wants to do.”
Adolphus Fletcher, a rising junior and a recent graduate of UD’s Associate in Arts program, hopes to major in business. But managing the situations he encountered at The Warehouse was a struggle, he said.
The teens he worked with were new to this kind of effort and this kind of environment. They didn’t arrive with focus or the skills necessary to shape citywide programs. They needed coaching, guidance and behavior management. He felt unqualified.
“At first I hated it, quite frankly,” he said. “But I’ve learned so much about myself and how to better myself. I always wanted to work for social change. I think I’ve learned to deal with people better and help people grow themselves…. These kids haven’t had that before. We’re helping them take their lives to the next level.”
In addition to Gibbs, Wills and Fletcher, the Wilmington Summer Scholars team included senior computer science major and McNair Scholar Derola Bolarinwa, senior English and public policy major Rahsel Holland and junior Liam Stewart, majoring in hospitality and hotel management.
Holland worked in several of the city’s “Safe Havens,” developing histories of these community centers, how they were formed and who they were named for. It was inspiring to learn those stories, she said.
Stewart also worked on the Safe Havens project, learning from Darryl Chambers, who has a long history of advocacy in the city and now is pursuing his doctoral degree at UD.
“Darryl is a big reason why I agreed to do this,” Teague said. “I wanted these students to be around mentors who know what they are doing. He wasn’t easy on them – and that was an asset.”
Stewart said he was impressed by time spent at the Creative Vision Factory, a drop-in center on Market Street.
“I met a lot of interesting people and learning from their experiences was eye-opening,” he said. “One of them is in a wheelchair. He is homeless. But he is working with clay there and teaching ceramics to kids.”
Wills said touring Wilmington with Chambers opened his eyes to areas he had never noticed and helped him get a sense of the community some of the city’s youth lived in.
“It helped me understand why what we’re doing is important,” he said. “You have to know people to make a difference, make changes, get things done. We worked with some amazing people – from Public Allies and the University of Delaware and the Kingswood Community Center. It’s a big learning experience for us.”
Bolarwinya said her previous work with kids had been in a Newark-based daycare center, where many were the children of professors or from middle-class families. There, she was accustomed to a different kind of interaction than she encountered in Wilmington.
“I learned that you can’t take offense,” she said. “It’s less personal. That was the least of my worries – and the least of their problems also. We’re not trying to lecture them on staying off the street or stopping violence. We want to help them make connections and find a job. That’s much more effective than saying ‘Stay off the streets’ or ‘Don’t shoot each other.’”
The stress many city youth face is unfamiliar to those who only study it in books or drive by for a quick look, Fletcher said. And as everyone knows, kids can make things tough for each other.
“One guy was different and some kids were saying, ‘What is his issue?’ Maybe he had a learning disability, but he doesn’t even know that. Meanwhile, he is being a problem the whole time and kids are making fun of him. There’s a lot of tension. But maybe he can’t sleep at night. He’s worried about how he can get any money. It’s a completely different stress level than I’m used to.”
Bolarwinya said it was important to shift her focus from the things she wanted to accomplish to those the work was meant to benefit.
“You have to put them first,” she said. “It’s not that these kids are at our disposal, just helpful resources for us. We have to take a backseat and put them first.”
Gibbs used skills she developed while working with a leadership development company called “Strive” to interact with teens at the H. Fletcher Brown Boys and Girls Club. As she listened to the teens, sometimes hearing harsh words or seeing tantrums, she recognized that many were dealing with trauma, anxiety and other internal challenges. She urged them to take their own wellbeing seriously and reflect on their interactions, as she also is working to do.
“Monitoring yourself is important,” she said. “Is your ‘fuel tank’ good? How are you talking to others? Are you watching your tone? Those are skills they need to learn for themselves.”
During a youth program held at Bayard Elementary School in late July, the Wilmington Summer Scholars met with about a dozen city teens, asking for their suggestions and opinions and recording their answers for a podcast.
They came away with a lot of messages from Wilmington’s teens. Among them:
There are a lot of kids with potential out here. Give us alternatives.
Help us learn self-improvement. Help us build our confidence. Those are big issues.
Some kids don’t know who they are. They just want to fit in. And they want to hear from someone that’s them or has been them.
Give us time to talk together. Ask us questions and let us discuss things in groups.
Give us more sports teams.
Make this last throughout the year, not just in the summer.
Who you associate with can determine whether you feel safe in the city.
We have second-graders and third-graders listening to rappers with guns in their songs, making it catchy. It’s at school and at home. Every song has a message. The creators of that – those producers – push that agenda.
People have paranoia. The way they deal with things is immature.
There are prostitutes everywhere and sometimes people assume things about me just because of how I look.
Some people have had a rough life. They can’t just change suddenly. It’s all they know.
You can’t coach something you’ve never done before. It’s like getting someone on a skateboard to coach basketball.
I like working with kids, teaching them about helping people and being kind.
What might keep someone from going to a program? Other kids.
Transportation is a problem, but a lot of kids are embarrassed to say that. They’re scared. Maybe fake taxis or a bus loop could help.
A lot of things are too expensive. In New York there were more opportunities. We need more low-income community centers, daycare centers and summer camps.
The needs are great, the goals are ambitious and the work is hard, Fletcher said, but you never know what might turn the tide for someone. Kids learn how life could be better by seeing real alternatives and experiencing what it’s like to laugh, have fun and grow.
“Kids may not have the best life, but if you give them 10-15 minutes of happiness and joy – if they’re smiling and they’re happy – they’ll want more of that,” he said.
The work has been intense and it will take awhile for these Scholars to figure out all that has been accomplished, Teague said.
“We know a little about a lot of things now,” said Teague. “Some people get siloed and don’t look to the left or the right. We haven’t had that problem. Maybe in the future we’ll be more like embedded researchers. But they really made the most of their time in Wilmington and not every kid does that.
“I want to keep that magic sauce, stay in touch with them and get them to make presentations for incoming students and anybody else who will listen.”