“In Small Towns Anything is Possible”

Tarboro Downtown 2

“If I’m going to be a transformational leader, then I have to be willing to change myself,” Avery Smedley (Duke ’25) shared.  This summer she’s working at Michael’s Angels in Tarboro, North Carolina. Each day Avery along with two other scholars, Katie Chai (UNC ’25) and Reagan Razon (Duke ’25) are creating fun and educational experiences for young children from all over Edgecombe County. “Working with kids, teaches you so much about your personal development, and it can be hard to hear when they ask you questions about why you’re doing something or why you’re acting the way you are, but it’s helped me realize the things I want to work on for myself and the way I move in the world,” Avery said.

“I really feel like we are counselors as well as teachers for these kids,” Katie added. “I wanted to be a good role model for them, and I’m finding a piece of myself in each of them. I love finding the parallels in our lives and trying to give them hope about their future journeys.”

Reagan Razon, Katie Chai, and Avery Smedley

“I’m really proud of everything we’ve done here in just eight weeks. We’ve been trying to create experiences around culture, and science, cooking, finance, art, and there have been so many people in the community that have helped us with that. I think we’re creating these deep relationships with the kids and honestly just being here with them as women of color in college, showing how much we care about them and trying to help them where we can. It’s so important to show them that care and love,” Avery said.

At Michael’s Angels Avery, Katie, and Reagan are going beyond typical summer day camp. The robust curriculum they’re developing also dives into STEM to introduce the kids to science, technology, engineering, and math through play and exploration. “Katie does this awesome math game with the kids and it becomes a fun competition,” Reagan shared. “We’ve been managing the program in a fun way for the children and it becomes really fun for us. But my favorite day is when we have Pool Day. To go the pool and see all these young black children, it makes me feel like I’m at home. The other day a lady came up to me at the pool and said, she’s proud of me because I go to Duke and I’m here helping Michael’s Angels. It’s a good reminder that even though we’re not from here there are people who know us and care about us.”

In Tarboro, North Carolina, Scholars become known in the community quickly. They’re paired with mentors not just through the jobs that they hold, but also through the Eastern North Carolina Internship Program (ENCIP). “The people of Edgecombe County are amazing, and bright, and welcoming. We’re also a county with great need and we want Robertson Scholars to see that when they come here for Community Summer,” shared June Leland, Director of ENCIP. “There’s a need for a pouring in of new ideas and energy and different perspectives, and Scholars bring that to our community. And likewise, we as a community are able to expose them to new perspectives and really invite them into our homes, and experiences.”

 “I was surprised by how open rural towns are to visitors and how curious folks are about other people’s experiences. For my job, I travel to a lot of neighboring towns and there’s this incredible energy,” shared Emilio Abelmann (Duke ’25). Emilio is working with Athletes of Life, a program focused on providing high school athletes with support and education both on and off the football field. He’s traveling to area high schools along with another ENCIP intern, Jalen Razor a student and football player at Chowan University. They’re working with young men on football teams, setting up academic and personal support systems for the players. “I came here with the wrong understanding that football was the issue. In reality, its everything; It’s lack of educational resources, its housing insecurity, its domestic violence and each of these issues are vastly complicated. It’s really not about football at all.”

Emilio said he’s most proud of the relationships he’s been building with the players and the community, and credits Jalen with helping him make those connections. “He’s from here, and he’s fantastic. I’ve been learning so much from him and he’s helped me be more effective than I ever could on my own. He knows what these players have experienced, and we’re learning a lot from each other. In our conversations with the players, you can see a spark as we help them realize things they may never have thought were possible.” For Jalen, the feeling is mutual, “Meeting Emilio and the other Robertsons has been so rewarding, we’re working together and I feel like with my perspective we are creating these inside routes to help someone and we’re doing all we can. I feel good about the work I’m doing in the community, and I know I can do more,” Jalen shared.

Danica Bajaj delivers a presentation on drug and alcohol abuse prevention

Each Robertson Scholar in Tarboro has been focused on education in some way through their internships this summer. Danica Bajaj (Duke ’25) created a series of educational programs through her role at Edgecombe County Health Department. She’s focused on prevention strategies to combat drug and alcohol abuse. She’s also innovating an existing program run by the county to provide clean needles to those in need, “I’m working specifically on the Syringe Service Program. It’s a harm reduction program that was actually created by Ralph Lawton (Duke ’20), another Robertson scholar, the health department, and sheriff’s office. My idea is to mobilize the existing efforts by meeting people where they’re at. There’s no public transportation here, and there can be other barriers for folks facing addiction such as mistrust of the agencies who want to help them. So, my main project is bringing the good harm reduction strategies and things we have in place to them directly.” Her idea is gaining major traction with the Health Department and County Managers and is in the works to become a reality. “It feels like a huge personal victory as a young woman of color, to be in these spaces and to be given the opportunity to now be involved with policy and education, and events.”

For Dorian Ho (UNC ’25), education is also a must. “I’m actually leading a clinic about the importance of advance directives and planning of end-of-life care. No one wants to think about it, but it’s so important to destigmatize and have tough conversations around death.” He’s working with Vidant Health providing education and care around end-of-life planning. “As an intern my day to day is really varied. Some days I’m out visiting houses, some days I’m shadowing palliative care physicians. But for me I’ve really enjoyed having difficult conversations with people and gaining their trust. Once you can establish a baseline with people and show that you respect their choices, they become so open with you. I’m a pre-med student and for me, I’m learning how as a doctor I can make sure that patients are receiving care that they want and changing the doctor-patient dynamic so that you’re exploring the human condition more than just addressing an illness.” Dorian has plans to implement what he’s learning in Tarboro once he’s back at UNC. “I volunteer at a free clinic in Carrboro, and I’m committed to creating an advance directive program there. The conversations here in Tarboro have also really helped me with gratitude and appreciation for the life you’re living, not just the accomplishments we’re told to pursue.”

Perisa Ashar (Duke ’25) is exploring mental health in school systems. She’s working to support students social and emotional needs, while increasing belonging among students at West Edgecombe Middle School. “I’m meeting with partners and working toward certain deliverables for when the school year starts. The work is important because we’re looking at Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and how we can add topics that are trauma informed and will produce a positive result for students and teachers in the school system. I feel really good about the work I’m doing and I want to continue researching about the efficacy of these established programs, once I’m back on campus.”

Saisha Dhar (Duke ’25) is working in the Rural Opportunity Institute‘s Small Bets Innovation Lab this summer. ROI is also using a trauma informed model to support resilient communities. “What surprised me is that a lot of people aren’t aware that trauma can be systemic and continuous and it doesn’t have to be a single instance, rather, it can be passed down through generations and has severe effects. I don’t think people go in depth about historical trauma in rural communities like Tarboro, and that can make it hard to create change,” Saisha shared. In the Small Bets Lab, she’s working alongside four graduate students exploring and researching ideas that are pitched to the lab from community members. ROI then has the opportunity to take the project and implement it on a large scale. “Right now, I’m working to understand natural and communal healing practices of indigenous communities to learn how they can improve and balance the nervous system, and researching if they can be used to serve a different community with context and respect to their origins. In my research, I’m interviewing members of indigenous communities, social workers, and trauma experts on how to improve the mind-body connection in health and understand cultural barriers present in health services.”

The transformational leadership lessons and connections to community are clear for Saisha, “I’m learning about leadership and kindness here. In our house, there’s a kindness cycle and we’re seeing leadership as we’re living with each other and blending in our friendships, and humor, and ways in which we can talk about our jobs and what we’re working on. We all have the same goal to leave things a little better than we found them, and we’re trying to help each other and the organizations we serve find connections and ways to collaborate so that we’re all supporting each other. It’s all about the connections you make in the community and brainstorming and collaboration.”

That type of collaboration and connection are key to the relationships formed in Tarboro, according to June Leland. “There is a richness that the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program brings to Edgecombe County. They’re young fun people and they’re interesting and full of life and ideas. I always tell scholars to budget an extra 15 minutes on your errands because people here want to know you and introduce themselves to you. There’s this fantastic opportunity for people who are very different and from different backgrounds to come together and get to know each other.”

(Back Row, Left to Right) Dr. Vicki Stocking, Perisa Ashar, Katie Chai, Emilio Abelmann, Audrey Walker, Andrew Lakis (Front Row, Left to Right) Reagan Razon, Saisha Dhar, Danica Bajaj, Dorian Ho, Avery Smedley