Student Spotlight: Elaijah Lapay ’24

Rising senior says embracing the Durham community has deepened his education and impact.

Elijah Lapay

By Alicia Banks

Published August 22, 2023 under Student Stories

When Elaijah Lapay enrolled at Duke in 2020, he had no ties to the university or Durham. But it didn’t take him long to plant roots.

Following his freshman year, Lapay, a Filipino-American from eastern North Carolina, participated in DukeEngage Durham, a service-learning program to address needs in the local community. While many students sought internships or study-abroad programs out of town, he spent each summer in Durham, finding new ways to serve local populations.  

“A lot of people know me as a community member first and see me as a student second,” says Lapay, a rising senior who is completing a self-designed major focused on migrant health and healthcare access. “It’s not about how long you’ve been somewhere. It’s about how much you invest with the time that you’re there.”

It’s not about how long you’ve been somewhere. It’s about how much you invest with the time that you’re there.

Elijah Lapay — Duke Class of 2024

Those investments include serving at the Lincoln Community Health Center, where Lapay has worked with his faculty mentor, Emily Esmaili, D.O., an adjunct assistant professor of global health and a provider at the center, to connect refugee and immigrant families with resources and services. He has also been involved with Root Causes, an organization founded by Duke medical students to address food insecurity and other health challenges faced by Duke Health patients.

Lapay began working with Root Causes as part of a Bass Connections team during his freshman year. He is now president of the group’s undergraduate coalition at Duke, working with a team to deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to patients who lack access to healthy foods. This fall, he will also co-lead a research project on food insecurity for Latino communities in the wake of COVID-19.

Earlier this year, Lapay was recognized by The Duke Office of Durham & Community Affairs with the 2023 Lars Lyon Community Service Award in honor of those commitments. But he says it’s not about awards or recognition. It’s about finding a sustainable way to serve a community.

“Staying local isn’t a novel idea, but I know it’s different from the traditional way people want to create change,” he says. “I’ve taken so much value from being in one place for an extended period of time. I haven’t felt slighted by choosing this.”

Remaining local has allowed Lapay to gain valuable insights about the communities he works with. For example, he’s noticed Root Causes isn’t always the first stop for Latino immigrants when they need aid. Many seek resources from Catholic churches because of their faith. Knowing where people turn can help open doors to partnerships, he says.

Elijah Lapay working with Root Causes

Lapay would like to see more Duke students recognize their power to make an impact on their community. He is involved with the Duke Service-Learning Program, which helps students line up opportunities with community partners to connect their coursework to service projects. Lapay has helped recruit students from global health courses to work with Root Causes.

Through the program, he has also developed an internship at the Lincoln Community Health Center for students to provide patient navigation services in English and Spanish. Two students have completed the internship, and more are expected to participate this fall.

It also keeps Lapay connected with Lincoln, where his project with Esmaili helped show him the value of community navigators. He recalls meeting a family that predominantly spoke Malay, which Lapay understands. He helped the family enroll their child into Pre-K at Durham’s federally qualified health center.

“I still go to Lincoln at least once a week to maintain those relationships,” he says. “If I want to make an impact and see things change, it’s not going to come from single-handed experiences.”