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Project Citizen: Lila Godfrey (’26)

Lila Godfrey (’26) is a statistics major at Duke University.

Duke’s new experiential orientation was no joke. As I explored my options for when I made the move to Durham in August, I was in awe: I could go on a trip to DC? What kind of college does that? Fortunately, Duke is that kind of college, and I had the opportunity to be a member of Project Citizen, a first-year orientation group spearheaded by Duke POLIS that aimed to immerse students in citizenship, democracy, and public service on various levels.

We were engaged around campus, but we also took a three-day trip to Washington, D.C., to obtain the necessary hands-on experience that accompanies a desire to enter into the realms of public policy and leadership. We explored the city, saw a mesmerizing musical about Frederick Douglass penned by Duke alum Charles Randolph-Wright, toured the United States Capitol Building (we even got to go in the underground tunnels!), and participated in various workshops that aided us in understanding citizenship and policy.

One component of the Project Citizen programming that stood out to me was a presentation from Pearce Godwin, the founder and CEO of the Listen First Project (and a Duke alum!). Passionate about guiding others to surmount differences and establish connections in spite of disagreements, Pearce had us engage in various exercises that taught us how to engage in polarizing conversations productively. We tested these newfound skills by watching members of our group spontaneously take on divisive topics as they debated but listened intently to each other’s viewpoints. Then we grappled with policy issues in smaller groups that were somehow even more contentious. Hearing from my peers was truly eye-opening, especially because it was one of my first opportunities to ascertain some of the diverse perspectives I’d be introduced to at Duke. Closer listening in policy debates is vital, and we continued to exercise these skills for the rest of the week.

Many of our activities followed a similar pattern to this as we heard from various speakers, encompassing legislative assistants, Congressional staff members, strategists, consultants, professors, and even a playwright. They inspired us by sharing their stories and assisted us in unlocking the tools that are critical to becoming the leaders they know we aspire to be. It was, and still is, almost unthinkable that we are rapidly approaching our time to take the reins and lead the way by carving out a new world as we see fit. It became increasingly evident that Duke would be perfect for building this foundation and assisting us in reaching for the stars.

An especially prominent highlight of the program, however, was the connections that I formed. The social facet of Project Citizen was unparalleled. Coming to a prestigious college with thousands of people petrified me, having grown up in an unhurried rural community in the mountains. However, I swiftly eased into college life with the help of my crew, those in charge of Project Citizen, and the friends I made in the program. We were divided into smaller groups called “crews” that consisted of about 7 or 8 students, and it was effortless to form close-knit relationships with people that remain my best friends to this day. My crew leader was an incredible mentor to me and we still talk daily– he played a major role in my adjustment to college life and undoubtedly facilitated the transition for me. I met many people outside of my crew who I instantly clicked with and I adored that Project Citizen consisted of some of the greatest people I have ever met. Project Citizen truly continues to impact me in this regard.

In its entirety, spending my first week of college as a part of Project Citizen was a phenomenal experience. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for every single student, and it allowed us to embrace everything that Duke has to offer, extending all the way to the nation’s capital. I grew to understand my new classmates– total strangers who quickly grew to be my favorite people– on a deep level as we learned and explored together. It was stimulating to have hands-on experience with a topic that fascinates me while being emboldened by some of the brightest minds I have ever encountered. Many of us entered orientation knowing we wanted to pursue something related to politics or policy, and we each had a chance to engage in that interest in whatever domain we desired. Project Citizen was truly a remarkable adventure, and it undeniably solidified that Duke is truly going to be at the heart of the greatest experiences of my life for years to come.