Opinion | Column

Duke's Grand Tour

In the late 1800s, young and wealthy European males left their families to travel around the world. With a tour guide and servants, they ventured to Paris, Geneva, Rome, and some traveled as far as Greece to gain exposure to cultural antiquity.

These young men would travel for a few months to a few years. After this educational rite of passage, they would return home to resume their former line of work. This traditional upper-class trip was also known as the Grand Tour.

Today's students also experience a Grand Tour of sorts, as more students take a gap year. They travel to far away places, building homes in Africa or studying with a famous microfinancer in a foreign university. After the year is over, they return home to the US and start their "real" university life.

But gap years are expensive, and many spend half of the time working to finance their travel. The cost has discouraged many students from making the trip abroad, until now, with the advent of the DukeEngage program.

DukeEngage can appear similar to these types of trips with one significant difference: The trip is free. So is Duke footing the bill for a modernized Grand Tour?

A DukeEngage representative posed this question to Engagers during an orientation session. After the awkward silence, she asked us what we hoped to get out of the program.

People said things like "I want to learn Spanish"; "I want to experience another culture"; and "I want to work in entrepreneurship." Interestingly, no one in our session said "I want to help people" (as an aside: she said our responses were unusual).

The Duke Engage volunteers and the people we are helping both hope to gain something significant from the experience. We shouldn't expect the Duke Engage program to be a completely selfless experience, because if the Engagers got nothing from the program, it would be hard to motivate them to continue in this line of work.

After the mandatory eight week commitment, Engagers will have to decide what to do when they return. Many will probably resume their lives as pre-med, pre-law, or pre-investment banker. Perhaps the more passionate will take up a job in public service. But will anyone return to their Duke Engage site?

Jobs in public policy and community service are generally low paying, and therefore, most students choose jobs outside of this realm after they graduate. Duke Engage, however, provides and opportunity for students to engage in their communities and not worry about money.

Duke Engage was a highly selective program this year, and most students that applied did not get to participate on the program. This means there is a desire to work in our communities, but money (or the lack thereof) is one factor holding us back.

The way I see it, Duke Engage now has two major obstacles to overcome: how to discourage students from using the program as a Grand Tour, and how to encourage long-term service after students graduate.

The government is also working on a solution. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which President Bush signed into law in November 2007, encourages students to enter fields of public service by forgiving some of the outstanding school debt per student after 10 years.

The debt forgiveness could amount to tens of thousands of dollars per student, and it applies to all levels of education, from college to public service lawyers. If policies like these continue, programs like Duke Engage are an effective way to get more students interested in this line of work.

My Duke Engage project starts next week in Guatemala, where I will be working with the Social Entrepreneurship Corps. My Tour Guides are two former Peace Corps workers, and instead of traveling to Paris to sip Evian, I will be in Antigua installing water purification systems.

Considering that I am allowed to bring only one camping backpack on the trip, and I'll need to fill it with enough supplies and clothes for two months, I feel comfortable saying that my trip is not a Grand Tour. And unlike a Grand Tourist, I hope my contributions to the country will remain long after I leave.

I still, however, have not been able to reconcile the other problem, and I imagine other Engagers haven't either: After this summer, what would bring us back to our DukeEngage site, in a violent foreign country like Guatemala?

I expect it will probably come down to the relationships I make. If I keep in touch with the people, and I feel responsible for the project, I'll be back.

Andrea Coravos is a Trinity junior. Her column will run every other Thursday over the summer.


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