What is the program process?

You officially join SOL after you apply for and accept a SOL summer grant. You may apply for the SOL summer grant any time after you complete the gateway course, PPS 263: Border Crossing. Entry to the spring course is dependent upon a course application, which we announce before registration. You must create a research proposal for an eight week (minimum) summer project, secure commitments from a community partner, and find a faculty advisor. If you join the SOL program you are required to take the capstone course, Adaptive Leadership, in the fall semester that follows your summer project.

SOL Timeline


Gateway course: Border Crossing

An introduction to a leadership framework for engaging with value conflicts productively in order to mobilize groups, institutions and systems to create social change. This involves investigating the influence of personal values amidst value conflicts with discussion and case studies. The final section of the course is dedicated to training in basic research methods, learning the research protocol process for Duke’s IRB, and completing a group research project for a community partner organization.

Projects are guided not by specific instructions from the community partner, but by the creativity and curiosity in student efforts. In 2015, gateway students were tasked by local organization Durham CAN to present policy recommendations for ensuring adequate affordable housing when a new light rail system is built in the Triangle Area. Without further direction, two teams produced a broad-based survey of affordable housing challenges and opportunities in the area.


cbr project

Field research is conducted with a community partner (typically an NGO or public sector agency) community-based research projects are collaboratively designed, meaning the project will not be “dropped into” the community; they are developed together with a community partner. Projects are designed to meet an articulated community need (not assumed by the student or faculty mentor). They are conducted in a community setting, and should provide information or a product of immediate relevance for the community partner. Programmatic support is provided by the RSL Coordinator and a faculty mentor. The success of a project is dependent upon the relationships the student maintains with the community partner, faculty mentor, and Hart Leadership staff.


capstone course: adaptive leadership

Open to SOL students who have completed their summer research projects, this course allows students to reassess their summer experiences with special attention to the systemic dimensions of social issues. They learn about and begin practice “adaptive analysis” throughcase studies—the rich narratives presented in awarding winning documentary films—and then students apply the analysis to a particular case study that interests them. They develop their own case study by creating a policy research portfolio about a topic of their choice. While working in groups, students discuss strategies for systemic interventions, and ways of mobilizing institutions to do adaptive work.

Jason Wong returned from his project with the Institutional Rainwater Harvesting Network in Uganda on sustainable water systems in a village area to write his capstone portfolio on water deprivation in urban areas. He wrote his honors thesis in Economics on the Uganda project. Wong says,

“When I was starting my honors thesis, I went back to my SOL summer project and started thinking about ‘what is the adaptive challenge’? And I realized that even though [my honors thesis] was very technical—I spent a lot of time working on statistics programs doing mathematical calculations—I saw that the problem was very much institutional, systemic. And I started to analyze my data from that point of view.”

Wong currently works for the national water agency of Singapore. He connects his work back to lessons learned from SOL:

“Water is very daunting at the first glance (and still will be after the second, third and fourth). You have to consider it from the governance, business, technological, and social standpoints all at once. This can either cause people to turn away from it, or to resign themselves to having a limited effect. I think that with its very concrete and involved program, SOL gave us the tools to scrutinize what lies underneath the web, frame it well, and begin the process of developing actionable solutions to specific issues. This gave me a certain level of confidence that it can be solved. More importantly, the various experiences I was exposed to such as my research stint in Uganda helped me see how such work can make a difference in how people live. These factors have helped sustain my commitment to water through college and my working life.”