Program's social impact gets mixed reviews

Junior Raisa Ledesma arrived in Dublin, Ireland foreseeing community engagement beyond just office work.

Although Ledesma said she often spoke with the refugees her DukeEngage program served-one of her favorite parts of the job-she added that her summer in Dublin did not ultimately fulfill her expectations for community service.

"What I was expecting out of my placement was working with the community itself," she said. "I ended up in a sort of umbrella organization that worked as a support for ethnic communities. The most interaction I got was with people who came in and were filling out applications or using computers."

Student response to DukeEngage's community impact varied by site-and perhaps by need.

The foremost goal of DukeEngage is to identify challenges in a target community and address them accordingly, said Eric Mlyn, director of DukeEngage and director of the Duke Center for Civic Engagement.

"We are responding to a need that the community has expressed. It's No. 1 and instrumental," he said.

And some participants said they felt the programs did make a difference in their host areas.

In Hyderabad, India, junior Mathavi Jothimurugesan taught English to fourth and fifth graders, and she praised the program for instilling useful skills in the children that would be useful in the long-term. She added that the experience had a positive impact on her as well.

"For me personally, it helped me focus my career goals because I used to be pre-med, and now I feel like I want to go into the teaching career," Jothimurugesan said.

Uncertainties and changes to programs can cause office tasks to be assigned to DukeEngage participants, Mlyn said, occasionally shifting the type of engagement students expect.

"Sometimes the internships are different [from] what we think because of changes in personnel, organizations realizing what they need and students having different skills," he said. "My hope is that students aren't only doing office work, but it's hard to see that happen."

Although DukeEngage promotes itself as "civic engagement," some participants in the internship-like programs--such as those in Dublin and Seattle-said they did not directly engage in their community but acknowledged that they had helped in some way.

Senior Scott Eren, who participated in the Seattle program, said his work involved spreading the message of the organization with which he had partnered, the Austin Foundation, which serves inner-city youth.

"We knew it was doing something for the organization we were working with, but not directly for the community," he said.

Participants in the Ireland program were originally supposed to design a mentoring project, but the group could not get the program off the ground because they could not establish key contacts, Ledesma said. As a result, she said she mostly performed administrative tasks.

Although some like Ledesma said they found internship work in their programs menial, Eren said he applied for the Seattle program specifically because it was designed as an internship, adding that he enjoyed learning public policy and management skills through his work.

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