How Duke Students Connect to Durham Through Art Education

A student at the Emily K. Center shows off her clay sculpture.

In the spring of 2006, three Duke students launched an initiative to engage fellow students with people in Durham through arts education. This initiative, called ArtsConnect, invited Duke student artists to connect with public school students in Durham to provide supplemental arts engagement that might not otherwise be provided in their schools.

ArtsConnect was founded by Eric Oberstein and his two friends, Howie Liu and Young-in Song. Oberstein is now the interim director of Duke Performances and a Grammy award-winning producer—but ArtsConnect might be his earliest public arts project.

Oberstein met Liu and Song in PubPol 265: Enterprising Leadership, a Duke Service-Learning Course taught by Tony Brown. The course required them to create a social enterprise project that served the arts community. “I was really inspired by that class and felt excited about the possibility of creating something new at Duke,” shared Eric. ArtsConnect gained traction and support with its inclusion in the social action projects of the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, part of Duke’s Office of Durham and Community Affairs. The former Director of the Partnership, Sam Miglarese, spoke with pride on how the partnership sponsored and supported Duke student leadership since 2006 in sharing the power of the arts with the curriculum of Emily K and other schools

“Our students look forward to their Fridays with ArtsConnect, and we are always blown away by the creativity and dedication of the Duke student volunteers.”
—Nephitearya Bailey, Emily K Center

Eric Oberstein in 2006 at one of the first volunteering sessions with ArtsConnect.

Since arriving at Duke his freshman year, Oberstein began to notice an interesting pattern amongst his peers. Students who were deeply involved in the arts in some way their entire lives were finding it difficult to remain engaged in their activity. Many students chose to remain involved in the arts through extracurriculars, while some simply dropped their art entirely. Taking a look at the broader community, he also noticed that the art programs at many Durham public schools did not receive much attention. “I thought maybe there is a gap that can be filled here. There’s a need in Durham because students aren’t receiving a really robust arts education experience in their schools, and there’s talent that these Duke students have, and a desire to give back, to teach, and to learn about teaching,” explained Oberstein.

Thirteen years after Oberstein, Liu, and Song reached out to their original partner, the West End Community Center, with their idea, ArtsConnect is still a familiar name around campus. Every Friday, a group of six to eight Duke students make their way to the Emily Krzyzewski Center on West Chapel Hill Street. Founded by Coach Mike Krzyzewski, this non-profit has served as a college access center for low-income K-12 students and graduates in Durham by providing academic resources, information, and advising since 2006. ArtsConnect student volunteers host various arts and crafts activities for Durham elementary school students. Fall 2019 projects included pumpkin painting, making (and performing with!) sock puppets, and origami. Arts Connect continues to serve as a bridge between Duke students and Durham public school students—while also contributing to the overall impact of the Emily K Center.

The original Chronicle article about ArtsConnect from 2006.

“ArtsConnect has been an important partner to the Center for a number of years now. Participation in hands-on learning experiences, especially with an art focus, has such a positive impact on student achievement and engagement. Our students look forward to their Fridays with ArtsConnect, and we are always blown away by the creativity and dedication of the Duke student volunteers. We are grateful to have been the beneficiary of  Eric Oberstein, Howie Liu, and Young-in Song’s vision to connect Durham students to more arts education,” expressed Nephitearya Bailey the Associate Director of Elementary and Middle School Programming at the Emily K Center.

Over the years, ArtsConnect has transitioned to involve Duke students with all levels of arts skill sets and interests—not just Duke student artists-turned-instructors. The weekly sessions also serve to help the student volunteers de-stress with fun craft activities and engage with their community beyond campus. “I joined ArtsConnect because I love self-expression and feel that a great way to get kids to express themselves is through making art,” said freshman Lauren Garbett, a new ArtsConnect volunteer this year.

Students at the Emily K Center painting pumpkins at a volunteer session before Halloween.
A student building a clay sculpture of a raven.

“I joined ArtsConnect because I love self-expression and feel that a great way to get kids to express themselves is through making art.”—Lauren Garbett, Class of 2023

Current junior and president of ArtsConnect, Olivia Liu, shared, “ArtsConnect has been such a big part of my experience at Duke so far, and I love getting to work with the kids at the Emily K Center. I initially joined because I used to love doing arts and crafts myself as a kid, and I wanted to share that love with the community. The kids that we work with are by far my favorite part of ArtsConnect. They are so sweet, and they surprise me every time with how creative they are!”

The gradual transition of ArtsConnect reflects a larger transition within Duke. “The arts have always been at Duke in some fashion or another,” recalled Oberstein. “But when I was a student, the arts lived on the periphery of the student experience. That really changed midway through my Duke career. By my junior year, Duke came out with a new strategic plan and the arts were one of a handful of strategic priority areas.”

Some of these changes included increasing funding for and visibility of art programs and initiatives, establishing a Vice Provost for the Arts, and building and renovating art spaces on campus. As the university made significant changes, student art groups also began to organize more intentionally to provide a space for students of all skill and interest levels in the arts to nurture their creativity.

Getting involved in the arts on campus is now easier than ever before. Student-run organizations like ArtsConnect—one of over 100 student arts groups—provide students important spaces and community to explore and further grow their interests and talents in the arts.

Follow ArtsConnect on Facebook!Learn About DuARTS, the Umbrella Organization for Duke Student Arts Groups

Joyce is a sophomore from New Jersey majoring in Psychology with minors in Environmental Sciences and Visual & Media Studies. She is interested in exploring the intersection between the environment/sustainability and the arts, and is very involved with various environmental and art organizations. Joyce is currently the chair of the DUU VisArts committee, has been volunteering with ArtsConnect since her freshman year, and is president of the Environmental Alliance club. She just joined the CAST team this year and has really enjoyed finding new ways to support and spread the arts on campus.