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From a DukeEngage dropout

On June 1, 2009, I boarded a plane to Trinidad and Tobago as part of a DukeEngage program under the direction of Fuqua Professor Lucy Reuben. On July 13, 2009, I returned to North Carolina, almost four weeks shy of the program’s official end date. I paid back DukeEngage $752 and I paid the travel agency $324 to secure an earlier return date.

I withdrew from my DukeEngage program because, in my opinion, my site was a waste of financial and human resources.

Another student and I were assigned to a site known as the Women’s Cooperative Group in the Village of California, under DukeEngage Site Supervisor Letitia Cole. To me, the word “group” implies more than one person and the capitalization of the term implies some sort of formal infrastructure. Imagine my surprise when I found myself spending almost all of my six weeks in Trinidad in my bedroom, wondering exactly what was going on. And then I discovered Cole was Reuben’s sister-in-law and suddenly everything seemed clearer to me. I asked to be assigned to another site in Trinidad—and I wasn’t surprised when Reuben denied that request.

Instead, I was told to devote myself to making logos, writing press releases and taking pictures of villagers. I felt like I was thrown into a marketing and public relations internship. And from what I could tell, nobody in the village was actually benefitting from my so-called work—at least, nobody other than Cole. By the fourth week of my time there, I was tired of it all: the publicity mongering, the assignments with unclear purposes, the inconsistent statements….

I pretended I had forgotten to bring my camera when I was asked to take photos of students at a primary school. I argued with Cole about the merits of attaching my name and photo to press releases. I asked DukeEngage Director Eric Mlyn to intervene and demand answers from Cole and Reuben. But things only got worse, and I realized that my presence in the village was generating false hope.

When I got back to the United States, I attempted to erase DukeEngage from my life and pretended that the entire summer never happened. But when I found out that the site would be renewed for a second summer, under the same leadership, I couldn’t let it go. I met with Mlyn, I spoke directly to students about my experience and I even brought the issue up with Duke Student Government.

Both Mlyn and Reuben insist that the site’s written report for my summer is not available to the public (i.e. me). And, if all goes according to plan, the site will continue for another summer.

Lisa Ma is a Trinity senior and former editorial page editor of The Chronicle.

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