What I Learned as a Green Barbie

A DGHI master’s student builds community through a unique problem-solving workshop for Duke graduate students.

Joan Kimani and team at Masters Impact Challenge

DGHI master's student Joan Kimani (second from left) and teammates Wynona Curaming (lfrom left), Maria Silva, and Aulia Sarah at the inaugural Masters Impact Challenge, where they won an award for most innovative solution.

By Joan Kimani

Published February 29, 2024 under Voices of DGHI

Note: Joan Kimani, a first-year student in the Master of Science in Global Health program, was one of 40 Duke graduate students who participated in the university’s inaugural Masters Impact Challenge, an interdisciplinary problem-solving competition held Jan. 12-14.

“For the Most Innovative Solution Award, the winner is … the Green Barbies.” 

I can hardly believe that I am hearing those words. I am sitting in a conference room in the Durham Hilton, surrounded by Duke graduate students from across the university. We have spent the whole weekend brainstorming how to change an aspect of student behavior to benefit the climate and promote sustainability. My team’s idea was to reduce the climate impact of Duke students’ fashion choices by promoting more sustainable clothing options. We are the Green Barbies, and we just won one of the weekend’s category awards

This is the Masters Impact Challenge, a workshop where graduate students from different fields worked together to come up with ways to promote sustainability on campus. The first-ever event was created by Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, a professor in the Pratt School of Engineering, as part of her Presidential Fellowship during the 2022-23 academic year. She wanted to design a project that advanced the university’s strategic goals and her own interest in building community among graduate students. 

It was refreshing and rewarding to be among master’s students from across the university, each of whom brought unique knowledge and experiences to the challenge.

The challenge was open to all Duke students in master’s degree programs, and I saw it advertised on email and social media. I decided to participate, as climate and environmental preservation are such important issues globally, and I wanted to learn more about them. 

Having earned my undergraduate degree in medicine and surgery, I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb in discussions focused on climate change. However, I believed that my perspective as someone with medical and global health experience offered a valuable angle, considering the health implications of climate change and the role that medical professionals can play in addressing this global issue. I was also very focused on learning. 

On random selection, I was teamed up with Maria Silva from the Law School, Wynona Curaming from the Nicholas School of the Environment, and Aulia Sarah from the Pratt School of Engineering. We came up with a three-part plan that creates an interconnected fashion ecosystem for Duke students to mitigate negative impacts in their clothing choices. The plan includes a sustainable Duke clothing line, a quarterly Devil’s Thrifthouse where students can both donate and purchase used clothing, and fashion upcycling workshops.

We were one of nine teams working on sustainability solutions, and since all of the work had to be completed in three days, the pressure and sense of competition were high. The challenge tested my problem-solving skills and ability to innovate. I also learned a lot about the drivers of climate change globally. It was refreshing and rewarding to be among master’s students from across the university, each of whom brought unique knowledge and experiences to the challenge.  

As an international student, participating in the Masters Impact Challenge was an opportunity for me to make new friends and have connections in different departments. It was hard for me to move to a new country and university without a lot of connections. In addition to that, building a community is even harder as graduate students tend to be focused on individual projects. It does not help that we all live in different places in Durham and not in dorms like undergraduate students, making it harder to interact. I found it to be a great platform for networking. I loved knowing about other student’s backgrounds and past experiences. 

My team and I are continuing to work on our project, and we hope to see it implemented at the university. But the experience also reminded me that it’s important as a busy master’s student to break out of my shell  and meet people outside my daily routine. I plan on immersing myself in more activities on campus that expand my learning and interaction with other graduate students.