Duke students and volunteers build bonds across generations
by Katherine Hale
When Raina Carter joined the student ambassador program at Duke Gardens in June following her Duke graduation, she never expected her partnership with visitor service volunteer Jane Gilmore would help her find her own path as well.
In between welcoming visitors to the Gardens, Carter shared her fears and concerns over her decision to apply to medical school with Gilmore, who had a bird’s eye view of the process thanks to her own family’s experiences. Gilmore’s stories and support ultimately led Carter to exactly where she wanted to be—a post-baccalaureate pre-med program at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It was awesome talking to Jane and the other volunteers that I worked with, because so many of them had experiences in medicine, higher-level education, and life in general,” Carter says. “I could share my worries, my stresses, and the whole process of applying to all these programs and get their advice, because they had so much wisdom about what I was going through. It made transitioning out of Duke a lot less scary.”
Carter and Gilmore’s friendship isn’t an isolated incident. Not only have other pairs of students and volunteers worked together to share their love of Duke Gardens with visitors, they have also forged bonds with each other in a unique cross-generational exchange.
Duke Gardens hired a new group of visitor services students in April 2021, when the Gardens opened solely to university students, staff and faculty, with limited hours and by appointment. When the Gardens reopened to the public in June, volunteers joined the ambassador teams and they all moved to the Gothic Gate, offering self-guided materials to visitors and answering any questions they might have.
Niki Saylor, Duke Gardens’ coordinator of volunteer and visitor services, trains the ambassadors and coordinates their schedules.
“All of the students selected for the student ambassador role expressed in their interviews how important nature is—they wanted to work at the Gardens to ensure it was in their lives,” Saylor says. “This was especially true after a year of quarantine and virtual learning. They missed human interaction and saw the ambassador role as a way to engage face-to-face with other people and move away from technology.”
Duke junior Cole Walker began working at the Gardens in the fall semester. Having an experienced volunteer as a partner who was familiar with all the different gardens and their history made for smooth on-the-job training.
“Your first day of training is your first day on the job,” he says. “You’re with your other ambassador, you have your radio, and you go for it.” Now that he’s settled in, he and the volunteers have many good conversations, ranging from what’s happening in the wider Durham community to the state of the Duke football team, or his pre-Duke life in Atlanta.
Sophomore Soumya Bodavula agrees wholeheartedly. “A lot of the volunteers that I’ve interacted with are older white women, and I love being able to share pieces of my culture with them—usually bonding over our favorite Indian dishes. I’ve had conversations about different cultural expectations, generational differences, and what student life on campus has been like during the pandemic. I feel lucky that everyone I’ve worked with at the Gardens—both the volunteers and staff—are welcoming and receptive to my own experiences.”
These conversations sometimes extend to more esoteric subjects. Sophomore Rachel Kamis not only discussed philosophy and her academic reading materials with volunteer Girish Bhatt during lulls in their shifts together, they met up on their own time for the occasional tennis match afterward.
“Rachel is one of the most outgoing students I have come across in the past four years at Duke Gardens,” says Bhatt. “She’s a natural at the ambassador job.”
The volunteer garden ambassadors have also benefited from their interactions with the students. Having current undergraduates on site was particularly helpful with all the prospective students and their families coming to visit. “I could share my input as a parent,” Gilmore says, “and the students could answer questions about Duke as a school and what it’s like to be a student.”
“It was nice to have some young people as the face of the Gardens, in addition to the typical older volunteers,” says Ellen Levine, who has been volunteering at Duke Gardens since she retired from the university in 2014. “I was impressed by their maturity and responsibility.”
“I am amazed at the efficiency and focus the students bring to our four-hour stints,” says Bhatt, especially given their busy schedules and coursework. “I am not sure I would perform as well if I were in their shoes.”
Saylor is pleased at how Duke students are taking an interest in becoming student ambassadors, and she says she looks forward to engaging more students with the Gardens’ visitor services programs in the future.