Engaging Globally

Now in its fifth year, DukeEngage allows hundreds of students to spend a summer of service at home or abroad, at no cost to them.

August 10, 2011

Not a lot of stories start with, "So last summer I went to Sierra Leone to work with a social entrepreneur who had started a bee-keeping business, taking Sierra Leonean honey and brewing it into mead wine for export, and I happened to run into a bunch of Duke students in Freetown." But that is just how Jamie Patrick’s story about what he did this summer begins. Patrick, a junior at Duke University (and member of the Duke Apiary Club), started talking to his classmates’ guide, who, it turned out, ran an NGO in neighboring Liberia and saw a need to start a community-based rice farming operation there.

"I said I would help in whatever way I could," says Patrick, a double major in environmental science and earth and ocean science. "Mostly, that was through fund-raising on the American side and helping to develop a team of experts that could make this the best project it could be."

With Duke funding, Patrick was then able to spend eight weeks in Liberia this summer. He reports back that the rice farming project now serves three communities and is about to expand to two more, providing its members with a new business option – "a sustainable livelihood from the produce that they sell, and a sustainable food source from the portion that they would keep for themselves."

Patrick is one of about 400 Duke undergraduates traveling this summer though DukeEngage. Now in its fifth summer, DukeEngage provides the opportunity for undergraduates to undertake a fully funded eight-week civic engagement project, independently (as in Patrick’s case), or on a group program -- typically faculty- or staff-led, although a handful of programs are contracted out to volunteer-sending organizations. Many of the group programs are based in nontraditional destinations for American college students, including Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya, Uganda, and Vietnam. Within the United States, students are pursuing projects ranging from wetlands restoration in Louisiana to youth voter registration in Washington, D.C. The single largest DukeEngage program is based in Duke’s own city, Durham.

"Our mission is to contribute to student learning and development, to contribute something tangible to the communities that we’re serving, and, in some way, to impact the culture at Duke – to have an impact on what’s going on in the classroom, the dining hall and the dormitories," says Eric Mlyn, DukeEngage’s executive director and an adjunct associate professor of public policy. By the end of this summer, 1,400 students will have completed a DukeEngage experience since the program started in 2007. Of that number, about 700 will be students at Duke this fall – making up more than a tenth of the undergraduate student body.

"That’s significant," says Mlyn. "That means they’re talking about it on the bus that goes from East Campus to West Campus."

What makes DukeEngage distinctive is its scale. It was established with a $30 million endowment -- $15 million each from the Duke Endowment and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For each student participating, Duke covers the costs of flights and living expenses and, for those on federal financial aid, waives the summer earning requirement. The budget is about $4 million a year, about a quarter of which is funded by income from the endowment. The bulk of the remainder is paid for out of Duke’s central funds, although Mlyn says fund-raising for the program has yielded additional resources -- about $3 million last year -- some of which is expendable and some of which adds to the endowment. DukeEngage also recently received a $190,000 grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation to expand its pre- and post-departure programming.

DukeEngage experiences are not credit-bearing, but they are seen as critical to the undergraduate academic experience at the university. “If you look at our top three thematic priorities in our strategic plan, they would be globalization, interdisciplinarity and putting knowledge at the service of society,” says Peter Lange, Duke’s provost. “DukeEngage was an embodiment at the undergraduate level of those three broad themes. I know that sounds abstract, but that was not distant from our thinking about why this program would be so attractive.”

About 30 percent of DukeEngage students serve nationally and 70 percent internationally. As other U.S. colleges have added the words “globalization” or “internationalization” to their strategic plans, international service programs have grown accordingly. “International service has a place at the table as universities examine their role in the world,” says Amanda Moore McBride, an associate professor and associate dean for social work at Washington University in St. Louis, where she is also director of the Gephardt Institute for Public Service and research director for the Center for Social Development. Washington University hosted a conference on international service and higher education this spring, which attracted representatives from more than 40 colleges and 20 volunteer-sending organizations. One of the topics of discussion was the state of research on the field.

"I would say that we know it’s transformative for students," McBride says. "Why exactly it is, whether it’s the immersion versus the activity that they’re engaging in, versus the indirect encounters that they have with locals, I don’t think we know exactly."

The DukeEngage Experience

Students who wish to participate in DukeEngage either design an independent project in collaboration with a faculty or staff mentor – about 10 percent of DukeEngage students pursue independent projects, which are approved by a committee of faculty and DukeEngage staff -- or apply to up to two group programs (one international, one domestic). While some programs are more popular than others, overall there are about twice as many applications as there are spots.

A typical DukeEngage program has 8 to 12 students. In some sites, students live with host families; in others, in apartments, dorms or hostels. In the case of the faculty- and staff-led programs, leaders spend a minimum of two weeks on site. Each program also has a site director, typically but not always a graduate student, who stays for the duration of the program.

The type of service placement varies: Hillary Martinez, a junior and an English major, worked this summer at a Belfast nonprofit focused on peace-building called Intercomm, where she wrote a document explaining the organization to potential donors. Other students with her in Northern Ireland worked for different nonprofits, including a women’s center and a trauma center. Students in Peru were involved in installing clean-burning stoves and offering environmental and health education; students in China provided arts education in partnership with a local middle school. Closer to home, Jania Arcia Ramos, a sophomore, chose to work with El Centro Hispano in downtown Durham, developing a summer reading program for elementary school children.

"Some students are getting their hands dirty and some are typing all day," says Mlyn.

Broadly speaking, university-sponsored service falls within two main categories: service learning, in which the volunteer experience is attached to a credit-bearing class; and co-curricular service. DukeEngage, however, represents something of a hybrid: it's not graded or for credit, but while on site students attend lectures and take field trips, and participate in structured reflection sessions.

Some of the programs have language proficiency requirements or course prerequisites. For example, the Tanzania program, which focuses on medical equipment repair and technical training in local hospitals, requires students to have completed two semesters each of physics and calculus. Students who are participating in a health-care-oriented program in Haiti are encouraged, but not required, to take a Duke spring course, "Healing in the Developing World and Care of the Underserved," as well as Haitian Creole, prior to their trip. "There’s an effort to link DukeEngage to credit-based experiences, and we’re continuing to work on ways to build and enhance those linkages," says Lange, the provost. "We have a lot of students who use their DukeEngage experiences as the basis for independent study projects, or senior thesis projects."

From an administrative perspective, with Duke students scattered in volunteer placements all over the developing world, questions of health and safety have been particularly acute. A universitywide International Travel Oversight Committee vets potential sites and made the call, for example, to allow Duke students to return to Egypt this summer. Duke contracts with International SOS, which in addition to providing medical and evacuation services, also offers strategic advice on emerging risks; Mlyn recalls being on the phone with them daily two summers back, when Duke had 13 students in Honduras during a coup (ultimately the university decided to let the students stay and complete the program). There is a required orientation for all DukeEngage students, and Duke pays for preventative travel health services – vaccinations, anti-malarials and antibiotics – which cost the university close to $100,000 this year.

Mlyn declines to share statistics on the impact of DukeEngage, but says early data suggest that students who participate in the program are more likely to undertake research with a faculty member, attend graduate school or go into nonprofit work. Last year, it was the leading reason given by high school students for why they were applying to Duke.

"For the first time something surpassed basketball," says Mlyn, "and that was DukeEngage."


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