The independent news organization of Duke University

Engaging in DukeEngage

Last fall, DukeEngage surpassed Duke Men’s Basketball as the most heavily-cited reason on Common App applications that prospective students yearn to come to Duke. With a budget of $30 million, the program aims to get students involved with civic leadership and cultural immersion in cities across the world. The program offers Duke students the meaningful (and free) opportunity to serve in a new community and contribute, ideally, to some aggregate change.

On paper, this program seems perfect. It affords all students, regardless of background, the chance to travel and learn in a new place, and encourages cross-cultural connections, engagement, and relationships. Students even attend a two-day training academy on ethical voluntarism, and are given suggested readings by which to prepare for their respective locations.

But here’s the issue: these trainings don’t work.

I spent my summer participating in DukeEngage Detroit, a program run through the department for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The program leaders, Katherine Black and Matt Nash, are spectacular—not only is Matt a Detroit native, but the pair also provided plenty of materials by which students could get to know the city and its history, political landscape, and population. This wealth of available knowledge, combined with the vast pools of the internet, made it easy for me to prepare for my time in Detroit. I read extensively about housing policy, white flight to the suburbs, and segregation within the education system.

When I arrived in Detroit, I fell in love with a city full of culture, diversity, and rapidly changing neighborhoods. There are pockets of hipsters, a thriving downtown, a newly-installed bike-share program, and a strong black community that has maintained its independence and vibrancy throughout decades of racial violence and political marginalization. Of course, there are still places where bullet casings line the streets, and myriad abandoned buildings pooled with broken glass. Yet, if anything, Detroit became a model American city for me—a city that is a microcosm of the American experience. It is the ideal place from which to learn and it embraced me with open arms.

However, I began to realize that most of the students accompanying me on my program had not done the same amount of research. Even among those who had, many were still woefully uneducated on cultural norms and current issues. Some described neighborhoods as “ghetto” or “ratchet,” or made other racially charged remarks. None of these missteps were intentional, but they unfortunately had not been privy to appropriate required training.

This lack of training apparently was not unique to my experience. In fact, I believe the Detroit program is among the best-run DukeEngage options. It is led by qualified Duke faculty, takes place domestically and therefore theoretically provokes less culture shock, and its community partners are all well-established Detroit non-profits with significant needs. That being said, many students who were selected to for this opportunity to work in Detroit were culturally unprepared for their experience, and this unpreparedness is significantly more prevalent in various other DukeEngage programs.

Reading students’ blog posts gave me the impression that students participating in international DukeEngage programs could also benefit from more training. I prefer not to mention specific programs or specific students, but I read countless blog posts that made it clear that the student had not come in with sufficient knowledge of their summer destination. Some students were “surprised” to see so many cars in the “developing” countries in which they were working. Some wrote about feeling like an American celebrity while playing with kids. Some taught English for two weeks at a time without any training in teaching. Many posted pictures with smiling brown and black children, feeling proud of their accomplishments that summer.

None of these students were ill-intentioned. In fact, I imagine that most of them truly aimed to make a difference and engage with the communities in which they were living. The fault at hand then is not in the mal intent of students, but rather their inexperience with the nebulous and unique histories, cultures, and norms of their DukeEngage sites—not to mention their lack of exposure to thorough training on ethical voluntarism.

DukeEngage has the budget and resources to continue serving as a voice for change and empowerment at Duke. As it stands, DukeEngage certainly makes a lasting impact on many students, allowing them to experience immersion into a new culture and community, and to learn from the perspectives of others. Does it actually influence communities for the better? This depends on the student and his or her aggregate training. And this discrepancy should not be acceptable, especially as we send students to represent Duke University as an institution in communities across the globe. How do we want our university, our student body and our values to be represented?

A two-day training academy does not suffice in providing students with a comprehensive understanding of how unique cultures operate. Instead, students interested in participating in DukeEngage should be required to take a graded, semester-long course that delves into the political and social history of their program, introduces them to the work they will be carrying out and conditions they will be experiencing throughout the summer. This course should aim to sensitize them to avoid an attitude of white saviorism, to engage meaningfully with community members, and to respect the humanity and perspectives of every person they encounter. This course should be taught by faculty well-versed in these issues and the geographic sites, and it should be graded to ensure satisfactory student engagement.

I understand that a program of this size and rigor would be costly. But if DukeEngage is unwilling to invest in appropriately training student volunteers, perhaps it needs to rethink its espoused values.

“Challenge yourself, Change your world” is just words thrown together as long as students lack the tools to do so.

Leah Abrams is a Trinity sophomore. Her column "cut the bull" runs on alternate Fridays.