Cultivating Community

Guest post by Dielle McMillan, M.S.W. | Program Coordinator for Merit Scholarships, Office of Undergraduate Scholars & Fellows

The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” – Coretta Scott King

I studied communities throughout my undergraduate and graduate career. I received the “Community Leader of the year” award at Meredith College and I received my Masters in Social Work with a concentration in communities at UNC-Chapel Hill. I thought so arrogantly that I understood what community meant. But while visiting a school in Ghana, my thoughts around community were immensely challenged.

As a part of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program team here at Duke, I was invited to participate in the annual Mastercard Foundation Convening in Accra, Ghana. The Mastercard Foundation Scholars are students from Sub-Saharan Africa who study here at Duke for four years.

As a part of the Convening, we visited different schools in Ghana. While visiting the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), the common theme was community. The staff built community amongst their students, who were coming from all different countries across the continent of Africa. If a student was homesick, MEST would cook foods from the students’ home country. If a student wasn’t feeling connected, MEST would provide mentorship and community support for the student. No one was left out, no one was forgotten.

I had lunch with the Community Director at MEST and asked how she was cultivating the sense of community among the students. I wanted to pick her brain and steal her ideas, in a typical western fashion. She simply stated that they listen and they care about the students. They value the students’ opinions and the staff at MEST do not equate suggestions to a lack of gratitude but as a way that MEST can improve the students’ experiences. I could tell that MEST valued community. They prioritized community and I could see the benefits.

After lunch, all of the representatives sat in an audience as the students organized a mock “shark tank” presentation, where they pitched their entrepreneurial projects to us while we gave them critical feedback. Behind us, the other students would hop and holler and cheer on their peers, as if they were in a soccer match. I turned and looked at the Community Director and we smiled at one another. I understood that those moments of community were built off of the intentional decisions of the program staff.

After my visit to Accra, I boggled my brain trying to figure out how can serve these students in a way that promotes community.

Should I host native meals for the students? Or try to learn Swahili?

But then, it hit me. MEST was not successful in building community because they planned events, but because they listened to their students. They valued what they had to share. They valued their lived experiences, even if they were half as long as their own. They made the students feel seen and heard without sending out an annual feedback survey.

It’s the daily interactions that make us feel like we belong.

It’s the daily decisions to engage and show up for one another.

It’s the daily moments of offering support.

Those are the qualities of community. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity to visit MEST and have my thoughts challenged. I encourage you to ask yourself how you can build an intentional community amongst your students, your team, and your department.

Photo: Bridge built by MEST students so that they wouldn’t have to walk around the entire campus.