Supporting Marginalized Communities in Duke and Durham
by Matthew Majsak
Even before coming to Duke, Maryam Asenuga PPS’20 knew that she wanted to become a lawyer. In addition to being pre-law at Duke with the intent of studying criminal and civil rights law to advocate for minority communities, Asenuga found ways to make others feel more at home both at Duke and in Durham.
At the end of her freshman year Asenuga was elected to the Equity and Outreach Committee of Duke Student Government (DSG). Her involvement with DSG would become a major part of all four years at Duke.
“Being a minority student I always wanted to fulfill my passion for marginalized communities,” said Asenuga. “I thought that DSG would the best way to do that on Duke’s campus.”
After spending two years as a senator, Asenuga was appointed cabinet director of multi-cultural and racial outreach.
“One of the biggest things I liked about DSG, and why I would recommend it to all incoming students, is the fact that once you become a DSG officer, the administration and the president and other people in high up places are listening to what you have to say and want to do to make things better” she said.
As cabinet director, Asenuga made efforts to create physical and social spaces on Duke’s campus for marginalized communities to connect and support each other. In collaboration with other students and organizations on campus, she petitioned for the creation of a space for Native American and Indigenous students. This became a reality in January 2020 when Wekit (meaning ‘home’ in Carolina Algonquian language) had its grand opening.
Asenuga’s proudest achievement working with DSG was co-creating Duke’s Pride Invitational, the nation’s first invitational for LGBTQIA+ prospective students. She drew inspiration from programs like Latino Student Recruitment Weekend (LSRW) and the Black Student Alliance Invitational (BSAI) which connected Latinx and Black students with campus resources and helped build a relationships in order to have a community when arriving on campus. Asenuga and co-creator Ivan Robles wanted to create a similar program for incoming LGBTQIA+ students.
“We wanted the invitational to be rooted in introducing the prospective students to current students in the community and also alumni and resources,” said Asenuga.
The program was piloted in 2017 and held officially for the first time in 2019. The two day program included several events for prospective students to learn about the LGBTQIA+ community in Duke and Durham, such as an “honesty hour” at the Mary Lou Williams Center centered on raw and honest conversations about the LGBTQIA+ student experience at Duke, and a dinner at the LGBTQ Center of Durham where students were able to speak with staff workers and LGBTQIA+ residents of Durham.
“We wanted to make sure there were a lot of Durham specific resources because as we know Duke can be a bubble and it can be hard to get off campus and learn about those resources,” Asenuga noted.
Additional highlights were a drag show at the Duke Coffeehouse featuring one queen who was a Duke worker, a brunch with LGBTQIA+ faculty and alums, and closing remarks from President Price.
“I spoke to one prospective student who said ‘yeah I’m still kind of not sure about Duke’ and by the end of the day, after all the programming went by and all the resources were mapped out, he was completely adamant about attending Duke.”
Asenuga’s efforts to support marginalized communities expanded beyond the walls of Duke and into the larger Durham community. She worked with the MASTERY program to tutor refugee youth, utilizing her Arabic minor to converse with refugees from Arabic-speaking countries and support them.
“I am also a child of an immigrant so I really empathized with their struggles as refugees and specifically with the children,” said Asenuga.
“I tutored them in math and science but it was more so for me helping them assimilate to Durham and also have a space for them to talk about their experiences with someone who understands it a little bit.”
She also worked with Urban Ministries of Durham, a nonprofit which fights poverty and homelessness in the community, assisting with meal distribution and connecting residents of Durham struggling with the housing crisis with financials aid referrals.
Asenuga will be attending Columbia Law School in the fall to realize her goal to become a lawyer and continue to support marginalized communities.