New Support for Community Service

A new program at Duke U., to promote civic engagement, will fund semester-long volunteer projects for undergraduates.
February 13, 2007

Like many institutions, Duke University boasts of having a high volunteer rate among students. Internal data show that 80 percent of undergraduates take part in some type of service project -- be it a once-a-month tutoring session or a spring break humanitarian trip.

In a sign that Duke is encouraging students to go beyond sporadic volunteering, the university announced Monday the creation of a program that will provide full funding and administrative support to any undergraduate who wants to spend a summer or a semester taking part in a full-time service project.  

“This isn’t just about promoting service; it’s about taking it to a deeper level and building a more fundamental connection," Richard H. Brodhead, Duke's president, said in an interview. “We want students to build [service] into their academic experiences so that learning means more than taking tests and handing in papers.”

The Duke announcement comes at a time when national reports show that student volunteerism and  civic engagement are on the rise.   

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Duke Endowment of Charlotte are each spending $15 million to endow the program, called DukeEngage. (Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, is a graduate of Duke and a former trustee.)

Beginning in summer of 2008, students who have finished at least two semesters at Duke will be eligible to receive compensation for travel, expenses and cost of living related to their service projects. The university also plans to cover costs for faculty and staff who mentor students during the process. Projects include those that Duke sponsors through a class or existing program, those that Duke coordinates with outside entities and those that students think up themselves.

While Duke is allowing students latitude in submitting proposals, it is asking that the projects address an issue of "civic interest," noting that priority will be given for ones that "propose entrepreneurial solutions to societal problems and work to promote and sustain these ventures." The university is expecting students to work with nonprofit and nongovernmental associations that specialize in public service issues both domestically and abroad.

“If they find a serious opportunity for engagement, we’ll fund them,” Brodhead said.

Global health and education-related projects will likely be popular choices, and in some cases, students will choose projects that tie directly to a course they are taking, Brodhead added. Duke might award course credit for some projects, but the norm will be for these projects to come without credit.

Duke is running the program through the new Duke Center for Civic Engagement, which will serve as a clearinghouse for service projects at the university. Eric Mlyn, who will be the director of the center, said Duke is running a pilot program this summer for a few students with project ideas. For instance, a group of engineering students are scheduled to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans on city rebuilding efforts.  

Mlyn said the program is intended for students who are willing to make the project their central activity -- not an afterthought during a semester filled with classes. “Data show that the immersive experiences are the most meaningful and valuable ones," he said.

Maureen Curley, president of Campus Compact, a nonprofit organization that promotes community service, said Duke's announcement is a "major step forward" for colleges wanting to integrate service into the undergraduate experience.

"This is very exciting to have a university recognize the importance of civic engagement," Curley said. "What's significant here is the funding to make it attainable for every student."

Elle Pishny, a Duke senior majoring in public policy studies, said it's common for students to seek out volunteer projects but back off because they are under-funded. She said the DukeEngage program will be particularly helpful for students who are on financial aid, because it waves their summer earning requirements. The program will provide funding for students regardless of their financial need.  

Pishny, who co-founded a program called  Summer of Service that helps Duke students set up service projects, said groups like hers will also benefit from the new program. The organization is funded primarily through the career center and through alumni groups but could offer a greater selection of projects with guaranteed funding for individual participants, she said.

Duke is expecting about one-fourth of its undergraduates to participate in the program. Brodhead said he hopes other institutions take notice.

"I have no desire to thrown down the gauntlet, but I do have a desire to further the ambition of higher education," he said.


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