The independent news organization of Duke University

In defense of DukeEngage

DukeEngage makes for a woefully ineffective relief organization. After securing a $30 million initial endowment, the program’s leaders decided to help the poor, illiterate and hungry by sending a small army of Duke undergraduates across the country and world each summer. That’s like sending Coach K to be an elementary school literacy coach. Though I’d pay to see a guy named Mike Krzyzewski teach phonics, we’d make a larger impact by just hiring a good teacher.

But DukeEngage is not a relief organization. It’s an educational program that wants to cultivate a commitment to service and civic engagement in Duke undergraduates. According to its mission statement, “DukeEngage empowers students to address critical human needs through immersive service, in the process transforming students, advancing the University’s educational mission and providing meaningful assistance to communities in the U.S. and abroad.” The organization absolutely does care about providing “meaningful assistance”—but assistance is not its only, or even primary, objective. Of the six goals in its strategic plan, only two center on service.

Anyone associated with DukeEngage will readily acknowledge that the organization’s goals are not purely humanitarian. (Full disclosure: DukeEngage funded me this summer, and I serve on the program’s Student Advisory Council. The views here, however, are mine alone and don’t officially represent the organization.) Flying college kids to teach in Kenya for a summer is drastically less effective than donating to a reputable Kenyan school. The college kids probably don’t speak Swahili, they most likely lack teaching experience, and they certainly won’t stay more than a few months. Everyone knows that Duke students cannot change the world in a summer. DukeEngage emphasizes this in its slogan: “Challenge yourself. Change your world.” Notice the phrasing: your world, not the world. Staff members very intentionally remind participants that they cannot single-handedly solve all the world’s problems, or even any one problem. They’re given a simple message: Go, try to help the nonprofit with which you work and learn everything you possibly can. But don’t expect to solve anything, at least not yet.

Many people fret about the serious amount of money that goes into DukeEngage. Consider an international program in which students work in schools and participate in construction projects. Suppose the cost for two months’ room and board, airfare, insurance, visa and everything else comes to $10,000 per student. That $80,000, plus administrative costs, gives a community some low-skilled teachers and ineffective construction workers, and only for two months. What a waste! Unless, of course, you look beyond their impact on education and housing. What if you value students’ personal development, ability to navigate cultural and linguistic barriers and understanding of a developing country? These Duke students will eventually run U.S. aid programs, run multinational businesses and treat diverse patients in emergency rooms. Hopefully they will draw on the skills, knowledge, experience and understanding gained from their DukeEngage program. It’s harder to valuate DukeEngage once you consider these intangibles.

Once we acknowledge that DukeEngage isn’t a relief organization, we face a troubling question. Does the program use NGOs and partner communities as a means for Duke students’ growth? The famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who opposed using people as means to achieve a goal, would roll over in his grave if volunteering was only a means to benefit the (often privileged) volunteers. Let’s also remember that no Kenyan or Peruvian or Arizonan is forced to accept schooling from inexperienced teachers or stoves from novice engineers or advocacy from naïve Duke students—participation is voluntary. Most importantly, DukeEngage does better than most organizations at cultivating partnerships rather than client-like relationships with host communities. Its programs generally grow out of long-standing relationships with host communities; those communities must invite Duke to send volunteers. DukeEngage avoids using people as a means by working with established NGOs who understand the community and giving power to their partners on the ground.

If that doesn’t convince utilitarians who care more about results, I would point to communities’ economic benefits: DukeEngage pays homestay families, buys food from local stores and restaurants and reimburses travel with local taxis or rickshaws. Individual students purchase supplies from nearby markets, buy souvenirs from local artisans and pay for excursions with local guides. A tourism-dependent economy certainly carries dangers for a country, but Duke students’ economic impact on a community remains positive on the micro level. And that’s a worst-case scenario in which the volunteers’ work doesn’t add anything. Although students are not professionals, program leaders do interview applicants to choose a team that can contribute to their NGOs. DukeEngage provides some general training about service and travel, but the most important training often comes from program leaders or happens on the ground. Many programs produce tangible, quantifiable results: stoves built, medical equipment repaired, classes taught, trees planted. Students don’t have their degrees yet, but they do have some real skills that often yield real results for their host communities.

I hope to address one final criticism. I’ve heard many students bemoan the fact that some people do international service “for the wrong reasons.” These posers just go on DukeEngage for a free vacation or to enhance their resume. I would question the idea that one’s initial motives matter; if you engage in meaningful service, it will impact you—perhaps even more so if you didn’t initially care much about helping others. I’d rather a program take someone out of their privileged bubble than only accepting future social workers.

My point today is this: DukeEngage is often criticized for failing to achieve objectives that it never was meant to address. In reality, it is an innovative leader in the field of collegiate civic engagement. Every program has flaws, including DukeEngage. But an excellent program should be emulated, not excoriated.

Andrew Kragie is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday.


Share and discuss “In defense of DukeEngage” on social media.