Robertson Scholars Give Back in New Orleans

After a whirlwind freshman year, most college students are ready to head home for the summer— they spend their coveted break becoming lifeguards at the local pool, working as waiters at the pizza joint, or spending time with family and friends. But Tom Wanty, a rising sophomore at Duke University, didn’t fly back to London for the summer. Instead, he’s spending two months in New Orleans, helping NOAHH’s construction team finish builds in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Tom began the summer unclear about what to expect from working on the construction sites. “Before New Orleans and Habitat, I honestly had no experience in any similar building practice,” he said. But his lack of practical experience didn’t scare him. “I was excited to try something new, especially in a completely different climate than what I’m used to.”

One aspect of construction that did worry him was the constant supervision— Tom assumed he would be constantly monitored, and wouldn’t be allowed to complete more complex construction tasks on his own. When he first stepped onto the build site, however, though he still had someone to guide him when he needed, he found much more freedom than he’d expected. “The approach my site supervisor takes is much more hands off than I’d thought,” he said. “I’m really learning to do things myself, which is a much better way of developing my skills.”

Tom is in New Orleans on the Robertson Scholarship, a dual Duke and University of North Carolina scholarship program that sends students on community service-oriented summers after their first year at school. He lives with thirteen other students, all involved in their own service projects, but he thinks Habitat is different from the rest in one key way.

“Unlike a lot of other volunteering experiences, you can really see the progression of your efforts,” he said. “We started with just an empty lot on the first day, and after three weeks of work, we have the whole framework up— it looks like a real house now. It’s a really cool aspect of the work, and definitely unique to Habitat.” According to Tom, seeing that kind of tangible, physical progress on his primary build house is one of the most rewarding parts of working for Habitat.

Most Habitat volunteers build for a few days or weeks, but with his job lasting a full two months, Tom gets a different experience: in his two months, he’ll get to interact with dozens of volunteer groups and work on many construction sites. “I work with lots of different volunteers and meet new people every week, which is really fun,” he said. But the diversity of volunteers isn’t the only boon to Tom’s longer stay.

“The duration of the work means I get to see the effects of my effort,” he said. “By the end of this, I might actually see someone move into the house that we started from just [an empty] lot. It makes it a lot more meaningful.”