Earlier this month, sophomore Rinchen Dolma found herself moved by a tour of a Chilean torture site with eight classmates and two professors.
The trip was part of the DukeImmerse program, which involves small groups of students taking four interdisciplinary courses on a specific theme in one semester. The trip to Chile came after weeks of studying human rights issues, allowing the students to see their coursework manifested outside of the classroom. Dolma said she appreciated the opportunity to relate the subject matter of her courses and the trip to a personal struggle with cultural identity.
“You understand other people when you put yourself in their situation. This intensive learning has allowed these historical events to become a part of me,” Dolma said.
DukeImmerse launched in Spring 2012 and is offering two new options this Fall, one of which will take students to Chile. The program allows undergraduates to work closely with faculty and travel abroad for two to three weeks during the semester.
The two new programs being offered this Fall are "Governance, Policy and Social Justice: Urban Politics in the American South and South Africa" and "Rights and Identity in the Americas: Human Rights, Indigenous Peoples, and Contemporary Challenges."
The program is only in its second year, and there are still challenges to work through, said Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education.
The economic sustainability of the program is a key concern, he said.
"Early on, my office has been willing and able to really subsidize these programs," Nowicki said. "I'm running out of money to throw at it—at some point it has to be sustainable in terms of the kind of support we offer to help these programs run."
This semester, students who participated in DukeImmerse were asked to pay a program fee, and the fee will increase in semesters to come, Nowicki said. Part of the cost of the program can be covered by financial aid, however.
In the future, DukeImmerse could see more programs with local components rather than international ones, he added.
"I don't want this to be seen as just a different kind of way to do study abroad—because there are enormous opportunities for this kind of deeply immersive program just on campus," Nowicki said.
The "Rights and Identity in the Americas" program—led by Robin Kirk, faculty co-chair of the Duke Human Rights Center, public policy professor Robert Korstad and Miguel Rojas-Sotelo, a program coordinator at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies—focuses on the struggle for identity and human rights within minority communities. Students are given the opportunity to explore how contemporary indigenous communities commemorate the horrors of their past as part of their quest for social justice.
Participants of the program recently returned from a 10-day field trip to Chile where they stayed with an indigenous Mapuche family.
Kirk said the program’s emphasis on strong faculty-student relations plays a vital role in cultural engagement.
“There’s no better way to experience a culture than through the eyes of the people that actually live there—and the faculty are the ones that provide that connection,” Kirk noted.
On their recent trip to Chile, the program's nine students interacted with Mapuche politicians, academics and torture victims, giving them insight into the themes they studied within the classroom.
Although Kirk said she is deeply enthusiastic about her students’ work, particularly abroad, she noted that one of the main challenges is enabling them to take themselves seriously as witnesses, questioners and writers—going beyond their role as students.
“The question really is how do you get students to let go of the classroom model and see this new kind of learning as just as serious?” Kirk said. “It’s not just a class where you get an A, you take a test and you’re done. This is supposed to be transformative. It’s supposed to make a change in you.”
Letting go of the classroom model, however, is something that most students struggle with, Kirk acknowledged.
“A lot of times at Duke, I feel like everyone is so focused on grades, jobs and internships. But what is the purpose of education? Are we really here just to get a job—just to make money?” Dolma asked.
DukeImmerse, through its unconventional teaching methods, brings this question to the surface.
“Money and jobs are important," Dolma said. "But to understand each other on a common humanitarian ground, to reflect on your own actions in relation to the world around you—I think that’s important beyond a resume."
Sophomore Lauren Kelly, who is a participant in Kirk's DukeImmerse program, agreed that this kind of teaching goes against many of the “Type A” behaviors exhibited at Duke. She also acknowledged that it can be associated with a potential sense of isolation from students studying in a conventional curriculum.
Like Dolma, Kelly sees the abundance of opportunities behind this program.
“It’s a life changing experience that allows you to develop incredible friendships within a close-knit group of people,” Kelly said. “It can be isolating at times, but it can also provide a refreshing escape from the social bubbles we tend to create.”
Nicole Daniels, a senior who participated in a DukeImmerse program last semester, said that although DukeImmerse is valuable, it is a niche program that is not right for everyone.
“The theme has to really resonate with you—Immerse is all four of your classes and a lot of work, so you better be passionate about the subject matter. Your professors have a lot invested in you and have high expectations,” Daniels said.
The fact that the program takes a semester of coursework means that it can be difficult for students with many class requirements to fit in their schedules, Daniels added. But if students can afford taking the semester to participate, the experience is invaluable.