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DukeEngage Haiti cancelled due to unprofessional behavior

DukeEngage Haiti ended earlier this summer due to logistical complications.

The program’s eight students, who left the United States for Haiti on May 28, were informed that their program had been terminated one month early after the in-country coordinator was fired for unprofessional behavior. The University did not publicly announce the cancellation.

“The staff plan in place turned out to not be adequate,” said DukeEngage executive director Eric Mlyn.

For five years, DukeEngage has sent students to work with Family Health Ministries, a Haiti based organization that aims to help Haitian communities sustain healthy families. The in-country coordinator, who has not been named, was an employee of FHM, and the only supervisor present on site. He lived in the same quarters as the students. 

Students reported that the coordinator was acting in an unprofessional manner throughout the program. He was described as unreliable and unfit for the job by students.

“It was a bit of an adjustment to figure out how to work with someone who was acting unprofessionally,” said junior Caroline Meade who took part in the program.

After parents began to voice their concerns and apply pressure to the University, the in-country coordinator was fired from FHM, and students found themselves in limbo, without supervision or an organization to work with while in Haiti.

DukeEngage was unable to find a replacement coordinator, given the short window of time. FHM’s executive director, Kathy Walmer—an adjunct professor at the Duke Global Health institute and Duke coordinator for the DukeEngage Haiti Program—could not travel with the students to Haiti and declined to comment at this time. 

Mlyn said that the students were disappointed with the decision, but that the cancellation was necessary. The University could not leave the students without supervision or a planned program in Haiti, and thus terminated the program.

Meade noted that DukeEngage was not fully responsible for providing the in-country coordinator.

“Sending us home was a worst-case scenario,” program participant junior Nicole Savage said. “It was unfortunate because we couldn’t complete our DukeEngage experience.”

Meade, along with a number of other participants, gave up other opportunities to participate in the DukeEngage program in Haiti, Meade said.

“I personally don’t think this was well-handled by DukeEngage,” Savage, a photographer for The Chronicle, said. “I did not feel unsafe at any time, but looking back, the circumstances were bad and something had to happen.”

Although many students voiced their disappointment, Mlyn explained that the University offered alternative opportunities to the participants to make up for the cancellation of the trip. The students were given the option of participating in a service trip to Peru this summer, as well as priority for independent DukeEngage programs next summer. 

Savage said she enjoyed the four weeks she spent in Haiti with her fellow students, and had hoped for a different outcome, despite the setback with the supervisor.

“If they had given us the chance to stay, I think most of us would have stayed,” she said.

The Haiti program is not the only DukeEngage activity canceled this summer. Students participating in DukeEngage Cairo were sent home July 6 due to safety concerns after Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was unseated. Though the Cairo program’s cancellation was announced by the University via press release, no such action was taken with the termination of the Haiti program. Both programs have been removed from the DukeEngage website.

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