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DukeEngage has a branding problem

Yesterday, hundreds of Duke students found out whether or not they had been accepted into one of DukeEngage’s 26 international immersion programs. The lucky ones who have been accepted will soon receive t-shirts and training materials, all bearing the program’s motto: “Challenge yourself. Change your world.”

Hopefully, they’ll come to realize that you can’t change the world in eight weeks.

This shouldn’t be particularly groundbreaking, but it’s worth reminding ourselves nonetheless. Eight weeks of service might change one person’s life, improve one organization’s work. It might not. It certainly won’t rectify Catholic-Protestant tensions in Northern Ireland or fix damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

On the surface, this may seem like a failure of the DukeEngage program, at least through the lens of its current branding, which prioritizes flying to exotic locations and “changing the world” over investing in student development and creating lasting relationships with organizations. We often talk about DukeEngage as though it is a pioneer in the realm of collegiate service work. We need to challenge this, looking particularly at how DukeEngage presents itself publicly.

Now, as an alum of DukeEngage: New York City, I will be the first to recognize that DukeEngage does a lot of good for the Duke community. I credit the program with giving me the best—albeit most challenging—summer of my life. There are DukeEngage programs, both domestic and international, that do a lot of good for both the communities they serve and the students who participate. I don’t deny this. But I think that if we don’t look critically at a program like DukeEngage, we aren’t being responsible members of the Duke community.

With this in mind, I feel that a rebranding is in order.

First, the program should be more transparent about its goals. Instead of maintaining this facade that students can make a huge impact in the short-term, DukeEngage should recognize that its fundamental purpose is student growth, in hopes that students who complete the program will engage in service not merely for eight weeks, but for the rest of their lives. I worry that too many alums of DukeEngage see the program as “that thing I did one summer,” not as a call to continued action.

This necessitates a change of motto. Some would say that the motto does a sufficient job of addressing this in saying “Change your world” rather than “Change the world.” I disagree. I think that this is a sly way of appearing to avoid endorsing savior complexes while still implanting in students the idea that they can change the world.

Second, DukeEngage should be much more intentional in how it manages its online presence, as well as its participants’ online presences. I’m sure that those of us who checked Facebook, Twitter, etc. this summer are familiar with the three classic DukeEngage photos: the tourism picture—“DukeEngage: Go abroad on Duke’s dollar!”—the cultural appropriation or hugging the starving child. The last of these is particularly disturbing, as it both dishonest and exploitative in nature. And yet, the image seems to reemerge daily from May to August.

What most disappoints me is that DukeEngage seems to actively encourage this type of online representation of the program—sharing problematic blogs and posting questionable photos on their social media accounts. Even small steps could go a long way to rectify this: DukeEngage should train site coordinators to talk about harmful images and language with students, encourage discussion of this during DukeEngage Academy, and offer follow-up guidance to help students to process and talk about their service experiences.

Third, DukeEngage must actively resist allowing the program—and the communities it serves—to be exploited as a PR ploy for the University. Many of us may recognize the aforementioned images as problematic, but they still become part of Duke’s admissions materials, newsletters for alumni and media coverage. Part of me—the cynical part—suspects that DukeEngage has always been first and foremost a mechanism of image control for the University. It’s widely publicized 2007 launch seems like a clever ploy to draw attention away from a scandal that had tarnished the University’s name only months prior.

Now, I don’t fault the administration for using DukeEngage in its PR, I think that we must be very careful not to allow our fixation on image to overshadow our concern for ethical engagement and honest partnerships.

So what can the individual student do to ensure that his or her summer of service does not unintentionally become exploitative of a host community?

If you found out yesterday that you were accepted into an international program, I congratulate you. If you’re waiting to hear from a domestic program, I wish you best of luck. Either way, I encourage you to spend time learning about the communities and issues you will be working with, and reflecting on the ethical questions that accompany short-term service. A 50-minute ethics presentation at DukeEngage academy simply doesn’t cut it—these must be frequent, recurring conversations between DukeEngage participants, site coordinators and partner organizations. We can make these conversations happen. We can rebrand DukeEngage.

Katie Becker is a Trinity sophomore. This is her final column of the semester.

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