Eliza Mathew is the newest AJ Fletcher Community Engagement Fellow in Duke University’s Durham and Regional Affairs (DARA) office. Fletcher Foundation is happy to support this fellowship as part of our commitment to developing North Carolina’s future leaders and improving the wellbeing of marginalized communities around the state. The foundation endowed the Duke University President’s Discretionary Fund, and President Brodhead has consistently dedicated this funding to the AJ Fletcher Community Engagement Fellowship.
Having grown up in Durham, the community is close to Eliza’s heart. Eliza went to Elon University, where she studied education, before returning to Durham for three years as a teacher at Forest View Elementary School. This experience provided her with an opportunity to learn firsthand about many of the challenges her students and their families face. Teaching there allowed Eliza to develop close relationships with many of the parents of her students, especially because her Spanish fluency created an opportunity to connect more intimately with many of her Hispanic and Latino students’ parents, who often face language barriers in communicating with their children’s teachers and school systems.
These experiences led Eliza to reach out to Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr., Vice President of DARA, who connected her with the fellowship and continues to work closely with her to shape their work to best address community interests and needs. Says Eliza, “I appreciate a lot that Dr. Wynn has given me this opportunity, because I feel like these were some the issues I had when I was teaching. It’s like, ‘how do I come in today and teach this child this simple math problem when I know that X, Y, and Z happened last night when they were home and there are so many other issues that are also important that need to be addressed before I teach them anything?’”
Eliza’s fellowship thus far, which began in July 2015, has focused on three main subject areas: outreach to Hispanic families, assisting with several DARA programs in partnership with Durham public schools, and research into the many different programs available to families in Durham.
This last project has been unwieldy, as the different nonprofit, private, and public programs and resources available to families are dynamic and ever-changing. Eliza aims to compile a database of the many programs designed for prenatal through third grade children, as well as programs available to serve family needs more broadly, as the project has evolved to incorporate a more holistic approach to the many factors that influence children’s health, education, and well-being. More long term, this project aims to enhance collaboration and foster dialogue among providers about how to supplement existing programs or develop new ideas to address existing unmet needs.
The fellowship has allowed Eliza to explore the “big picture” of working to better the local community. While her passion remains education, Eliza enjoys learning about and working on the many related issues that affect the well-being of children and families: health care, mental health, language access, advocacy, special needs education, food access, and many more. Says Eliza, “I think that’s how this has been driven to that holistic approach… that we as a community have to take care of our children, mentally, health-wise, behavior-wise, before we’re expecting them to learn.”
Eliza is seen above teaching Stepping Stones, a DARA program, in July of 2014 at Forest View Elementary School.
Past AJ Fletcher Fellows with DARA include Erin Krauss, 2011-2012, who worked on the parent engagement aspect of all of DARA’s educational programs. Eleanor Bullard, 2013-2014, helped DARA with educational initiatives (Stepping Stones, After School Reading Academy), communications (Doing Good in the Neighborhood Campaign), and specific research work.