On Monday, Duke Partnership for Service held a series of community project events within the city of Durham in spirit of Martin Luther Jr. Day. We commend this effort by the organization since on other days of the year, it is difficult to encourage many Duke students to venture off campus and serve the larger Durham community.
Perhaps our lack of engagement with Durham stems from insufficient external motivation in the form of a service requirement. Aside from an informal requirement for students on the pre-health track, there is not formalized requisite for students to participate in the community service. Despite this, some students do find meaningful service opportunities off campus, but logistical barriers—specifically the unavailability of adequate transportation off campus—prevent many other students from even considering the Durham community as an opportunity for engagement.
Duke’s campus often insulates students from the happenings in Durham, and as a result, students can sometimes complete their undergraduate educations at the school without ever truly exploring the city outside the context of social events. For many of us, the Duke bubble is a stark change from the connected communities we lived in before. Prior to traveling to our university from across the world, many of us participated in religious groups, in service organizations, and in the day-to-day activities of the towns around us. However, once we arrived on campus, Duke became our all-encompassing habitat and our need for a community like Durham dissipated.
However, the University should take note that undergraduates cycle through this institution and do not truly experience Durham. Our mission statement urges us to embrace scholarship “in the service of society,” but we cannot truly strive toward that goal without institutional support. One possibility for change is a community service or service learning class requirement attached to the current proposals for the new curriculum. Some of our peer institutions have successfully implemented service requirements into their undergraduate curriculum. For example, at Tulane University, students must complete a public service requirement which involves two tiers of service learning. The first is a service learning course that must be taken before the fifth semester of full-time enrollment passes, and the second tier involves a number of options such as faculty sponsored public service research projects or international service-oriented study abroad programs.
That being said, any extracurricular service requirement would have to be onerous enough that it factors into prospective students’ decisions to apply. Forced service work might be more harmful for any community partners that would be burdened by the administrative hassle of uninterested volunteers. Further, communities are more likely to benefit from a prolonged, longitudinal investment from volunteers.
The University should recognize the importance of Durham to our on-campus community and make an investment to ensure a commitment to Durham is instilled among the undergraduate student body. While Trinity offers a certificate in Civic Engagement and Social Change, the University should push all students to step off campus and help the surrounding community. Perhaps, Duke could arrange annual days of service or utilize community partnerships to create more robust conduits between undergraduate students and our Durham neighbors.
While shocking to some, in many ways, it is unsurprising that Duke students rallied to raise money for a beloved campus cat. To undergraduates, the feline is a visible feature of the community. Duke should ensure that Durham is, too.
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