CGI U students make a difference locally, globally

Niles Barnes discusses the East Coast Greenway, James Ferencsik in Ghana, Leo Lou with Seeds for Peace volunteers
Niles Barnes discussing the East Coast Greenway, James Ferencsik in Ghana, Leo Lou with Seeds of Peace volunteers (All photos provided by participants)

As a member of the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) Network, Duke commits $10,000 annually to fund and sustain students’ commitments to action. The Duke Office of Civic Engagement is responsible for convening a faculty selection committee and administering the awards. In 2014, our committee chose seven projects to fund, and we were excited to receive five of the groups’ funding reports this week. The selection process was competitive, and applicants were selected based on the degree to which they incorporated their projects with their Duke experiences. The students we funded collaborated with Duke faculty, integrated their projects with existing university programs and student activities and used their classes and research to design and sustain their projects.

The five projects each fell into one of four categories: Environment & Climate Change, Peace & Human Rights, Public Health, or Education. Two of the projects were carried out in the United States, with two others in Sub-Saharan Africa and one in the Middle East. Two of the students graduated in May 2014 – one as an undergraduate from the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, and the other with a master’s degree from the Nicholas School. The remaining students are all sophomores or juniors.

Sustainable & Healthy Communities Program
Niles Barnes, a 2014 graduate of the Nicholas School of the Environment, works as the South Atlantic Coordinator for the East Coast Greenway Alliance. The East Coast Greenway (ECG) is an initiative connecting existing shared-use trails and right-of-ways with newly established conservation land, all of which will eventually link to form a continuous, traffic-free greenway along the entire East Coast from Key West, Florida to Maine’s Canadian border.

The DOCE provided $750 in support of Niles’ commitment to action, Sustainable & Healthy Communities, which is working to bring the ECG to eastern North Carolina. Compared to the other 14 states on ECG’s route, the trail in North Carolina is still largely incomplete. North Carolina also has some of the nation’s highest rates of diabetes and obesity – major public health issues that could be ameliorated if residents had access to a recreational trail like the ECG. Niles’ commitment to action contributes to the effort to bring the ECG to rural eastern North Carolina, where poverty and its related health problems are particularly severe.

Niles’ work provides an example of how graduate students can use CGI U to enhance what they’re already doing. His commitment to action was closely tied to his graduate work at the Nicholas School, where he researched the strong relationship between the environment, public health and the economy. His project was informed by the work he was already doing for his employer, the East Coast Greenway Alliance, where he continues to work after graduation. His office is in Durham, and he continues to work closely with Duke student, faculty and staff volunteers.

Sand for Life Solutions
The DOCE granted $3,000 to James Ferencsik, a sophomore A.B. Duke Scholar majoring in economics. James spent a month in Summer 2014 working to bring clean water to two villages in Ghana. Residents of these two villages, Tordzinu and Dorkplorame, were at constant risk of water-borne illness from their untreated drinking supply. James identified biosand filters as an effective and efficient solution to help purify drinking water in these villages. These filters, which are low-cost, fairly easy to maintain and effective at removing most harmful viruses and bacteria, can be produced locally. Rather than simply creating filters for the two villages, James spent his time in Ghana training local people to produce the filters. When he left Ghana, production continued under the supervision of a local foreman. He recently incorporated his project as a nonprofit organization, Sand for Life Solutions.

James is not an engineer, but Duke’s resources helped him to take on a technically complicated project. In addition to his Ghanian community partners, who included an engineer, social workers and an NGO consultant, James worked closely with many members of the Duke community. He received technical advice from two engineering professors and an engineering Ph.D student, all of whom now sit on his organization’s board of advisors. James received mentoring and project support from Duke’s chapter of the Compass Fellowship, and he also worked closely with Duke Engineers for International Development.  The collaborative nature of his project has helped him to achieve success. In his report, James writes that he plans to “return to Ghana in December to assess progress and head back next summer with a larger team.”

Healing Through Art
On paper, juniors Katie Fernelius and Manoj Kanagaraj may seem like unlikely partners. Manoj is a computer science major and an A.B. Duke Scholar; Katie, also an A.B. Duke Scholar, is majoring in global cultural studies in literature and working toward a certificate in documentary studies. However, both share a passion for global mental health, and their project allowed their divergent interests and strengths to act as complements. Katie and Manoj were both aware that, globally, mental health disorders are often stigmatized and that there is a worldwide deficit of adequate  mental health care. They chose to pilot their project in Swaziland, a country where this disparity is particularly acute – Swaziland, with a population of a million people, only has one psychiatrist, one general psychiatric hospital, and few outpatient mental health facilities. The students partnered with International Mental Health Resource Service (IMERSE), an NGO focusing on global mental health, and they also consulted local mental health practitioners and officials from Swaziland’s Ministry of Health.

Katie and Manoj reported, “We were not in a position to act as psychiatrists, therapists, or nurses, but we were in a position to facilitate, engage, and listen. For us, this was not just the most practical approach, but also the most ethical.” During their time in Swaziland, Katie and Manoj facilitated art workshops for mental health patients. The workshops focused on creating art related to public perceptions of mental illness and the stigma surrounding it. They also ran workshops on mental health and its stigmatization for a group of nursing students and for students at a local secondary school. To further ensure that their impact would last after they left the country, Katie and Manoj also created a mobile application that serves to help people identify signs of mental illness and find professional help.

The DOCE granted the group $1,200 based on the degree to which Duke’s resources shaped their project. Katie and Manoj’s commitment to action was informed in many ways by Duke faculty. They worked closely with a faculty member to create their plan of action, and both were inspired by their research assistantships – Katie’s looking at legal spaces in post-Apartheid South Africa and Manoj’s working with youth with mental disabilities in Peru and India. Both students plan to continue their advocacy for mental health and for the arts, both in Swaziland and on-campus, where Manoj is president of the Duke chapter of Autism Speaks and Katie is the editor of the Duke Chronicle’s arts section, Recess.

IGNITE Peer Mentoring
As a high school student in Jacksonville, Florida, Andrew Leon Hanna created the IGNITE peer mentoring program with the goal of reversing his school’s high dropout rate. The program, launched in 2009, pairs incoming high-school students with upperclassmen mentors and provides events such as bi-weekly hangouts, frequent field trips and an annual retreat. The program was considered a major success, and since it was enacted the school’s dropout rate has decreased by 35 percent. When Andrew came to Duke, he expanded the program to a Durham high school; the program is in its third year there. The DOCE’s selection committee granted Andrew $1,000 for continued support of the program. These funds supported him in launching a website, creating updated documentation for schools to use and registering as a nonprofit organization. He is currently working to expand the program further – it is set to launch at additional high schools in North Carolina and Florida.

Andrew graduated from Duke in 2014 with a degree in public policy studies. At Duke, he was a Robertson Scholar and served as senior class president. His IGNITE team consisted of six students, some of whom are continuing to work for the organization after Andrew’s graduation. The project is part of the Sanford School’s Enterprising Leadership Initiative, and as a student Andrew developed much of IGNITE in an independent study in Duke’s Program in Education. Like many Duke students, he was originally inspired by Professor Tony Brown’s popular Social Entrepreneurship in Action class, which prompted his decision to start an IGNITE program in Durham.

Cameras Across Borders
In her first year at Duke, Leo Lou was involved in a large number of Duke programs, all of which helped her to incubate an idea she called Cameras Across Borders. Now a sophomore with plans to major in public policy with a certificate in policy journalism and media studies, Leo was a Compass Fellow as well as a member of the Hart Leadership Program. She also participated in the Duke Start-Up Challenge. These entrepreneurial resources all helped her to envision and develop Cameras Across Borders, a project designed to foster communication between Israeli and Palestinian youth. Leo worked with the NGO Seeds of Peace to facilitate her project, which hopes to create groups of three students – one American, one Israeli, and one Palestinian – who will work together on a collaborative photo or video project. Leo received $2,000 from the DOCE for this project, which she has intensively researched and painstakingly planned.

In order to make sure she had the necessary knowledge to embark on such a project, Leo consulted with faculty from the Sanford School, the cultural anthropology department and the Nicholas School. Through her job at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, she examined her project through an ethical lens. Leo spent two months in the summer of 2014 visiting several Israeli and Palestinian cities, performing a risk assessment and evaluation of potential community impacts. Although her timeline was affected by the region’s extreme unrest, she learned valuable lessons for her project’s implementation, which is planned for next summer. In the next year, Leo plans to continue to use Duke’s resources as fully as possible – through courses at the Center for Documentary Studies, continued work with the Kenan Institute for Ethics and utilization of social innovation programs such as the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship and the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke.


For these students, CGI U was an important resource to help develop their ideas and projects – but it wasn’t their only resource. The DOCE encourages our CGI U students to take full advantage of all Duke has to offer, and we hope these five projects will provide an example of how this can be possible. By leveraging existing academic and extracurricular Duke resources, these students created sustainable projects that helped them to develop as scholars and citizens.

The application is now open for the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative University, which will be held in Miami in March. We encourage students to apply, and to use CGI U not as a standalone opportunity but as a way to enhance academic and creative work. Learn more.