Dan Kimberg collaborated with the Durham community to create Student U, an organization that empowers middle and high school students in the Durham Public Schools to develop the academic skills and personal well-being needed to beat the statistics and succeed in college and beyond, using after-school and summer programs to reach the students and their families.
While at Duke, Kimberg was a Robertson Scholar and pursued a self-designed major in Advocating for Educational Reform in Policy and Practice. He worked closely with Durham Public Schools and taught classes in New Orleans, Israel, and South Africa. Last year, he piloted the new Durham-Duke Fellowship, sponsored by Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs.
Our Conversation with Dan Kimberg
Duke I&E: You spent the summer following your freshman year teaching students in New Orleans. When you returned to Duke for your sophomore year, you designed your own major and, through Duke, started working with Carter Community School in Durham. What effect did connecting your academic studies to the real-world experiences of these young students have?
DK: Every conversation that took place inside a classroom at Duke had a direct connection to my experiences at Carter. What I learned in class helped me gain context for the challenges and successes at Carter. What I learned at Carter help me put into perspective what I read and discussed in class. There became no separation between class and work. Everything flowed together into one great opportunity for me to gain a better understanding of the Durham community.
Duke I&E: You conceived Student U in Duke Professor Tony Brown’s social entrepreneurship class. Was there a particular moment or scene when you realized this idea you had to change the lives of Durham students could actually become a reality?
DK: On Aug. 31, 2005, I sat in the first day of Tony Brown’s social entrepreneurship class. At the end of an energizing 75 minutes, Tony told us to pair up with the person sitting across from us and discuss ideas we had about how to have an impact on our community. I approached the woman who was to be my partner and said, “I am so happy to be matched up with you. I noticed every time I was smiling in class you were smiling too.” She thought I was weird and awkward, but she still agreed to talk with me. It was during this conversation that I found my passion and my person. Both Amanda and I shared a desire to prove that all students, regardless of the color of their skin or how much money they had in their pockets, had the ability to succeed. This dream became my passion and still drives me today. Amanda became my person. After years of being co-workers and then friends, we got married in October 2010.
Duke I&E: In your senior year at Duke, you were thinking about starting a charter school. How did Student U develop into the college-access organization it is today?
DK: Student U was built for Durham, by Durham. Our organization became what it is today because this is what Durham wanted. As we consider how and when to grow and expand, we will follow the same path and listen to the desires of the community.
Duke I&E: You spent two years listening to the Durham Public Schools community to learn what they needed, and Student U extends that community collaboration by employing students from Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State, and NC Central as teachers. Can you tell us why community collaboration is so important to you and Student U?
DK: Imagine a jar of jellybeans in the front of a large lecture hall. Research shows that the more people who take a guess as to how many jellybeans are in the jar, the more likely the average guess will be correct. In order to guess the amount of jellybeans-in order to end educational inequality, in order to solve any of the world’s problems-we must get as many people’s best guesses as possible.
Duke I&E: Student U’s first class will graduate from high school this year. What lessons have you learned in your journey with these students?
DK: As we prepare to celebrate our oldest class of students for graduating from high school and enrolling in college, we are reflecting on all the lessons we have learned in this journey. Most importantly, we have learned the power of people to take ownership of their lives and change their worlds. Our students’ dedication, determination, desire to beat the statistics and challenge the assumptions, is truly amazing. We have also learned how much more work there is to do in order to ensure that we will one day live in a community where all people have the opportunity to thrive.
Duke I&E: What advice would you give student innovators and entrepreneurs?
DK: 1) Listen first, then listen again, then ask for clarification, then listen some more, and then-and only then-act. 2) Only when we love ourselves can we love others. Make sure to spend more time working to improve your own life than you spend working on others.