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Grading DukeEngage Academy: Does the program really prepare students to volunteer around the world?

DukeEngage—a summer program that funds students' participation in service work around the world—has become a University staple. 

These volunteer opportunities range from group projects dedicated to assisting women and children in western India to enabling environmental conservation in Hawaii. Students may also propose an independent project if none of the 38 group programs fit their interests. 

How does Duke prepare its students to do service work abroad? One major part of the solution: DukeEngage Academy.

But how effective is it? The responses were mixed.

What is DukeEngage Academy?

Before students head to service sites, they must attend the Fortin Foundation DukeEngage Academy—a two-day program on East Campus that takes place in early May. 

According to the DukeEngage Academy website, the program provides the “groundwork and tools for effective civic engagement, safety and self-care, as well as fostering an ethos of critical reflection about the world around us and our place in it.”

As part of the training, workshops, speakers and group reflection sessions prepare students for service domestically or abroad. The schedule is packed with events from about 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. for the two days, based on last year's agenda. Students have required workshops they must attend—dealing with topics such as the ethics of engagement and travel safety. In addition, students choose three topical breakout sessions to attend. 

Eric Mlyn, the Peter Lange executive director of DukeEngage, said the academy is important because it helps students engage in their work in the most meaningful way possible. He said he was surprised by the number of students—particularly first-years—that do not realize the problems and difficulties found in volunteer work.

“We owe it to our students and communities we serve to try and do this work as well as we can, which includes preparation—including training, reflection, questioning things you’ve assumed before," he said. "We can’t do DukeEngage without [DukeEngage Academy]."

William H. Chafe—Alice Mary Baldwin professor emeritus of history and one of the program leaders for the Cape Town, South Africa program—said the Academy makes students more aware of issues they can encounter.

Without DukeEngage Academy, students would "be walking into something they’ve never seen before with a mask on, with blinders on,” Chafe said. 

Sessions for faculty also focus on Duke’s values and expectations. Purnima Shah—director of the dance program and program leader for the Ahmedabad, India program—said she attended her first session this past summer. 

“These exchanges are absolutely necessary because program directors are from all different fields and backgrounds, so it is very important to understand the commonalities of Duke values and what Duke is expecting us to do and what the expectations are for DukeEngage,” Shah said. 

Is it effective?

Meredith Casper, assistant director for training and student development, said that students sometimes only realize the value of the academy when embedded in their service location. 

She explained that when students are in the field doing service work, they begin to realize the sessions they should have attended while at the academy. She said students have told her that, while volunteering, they looked back at certain presentations from the academy five or six times. 

"Students don’t always know what they don’t know," Casper said. "Increasingly, they are becoming aware of the ethical implications of being unprepared for their community."

Junior Astha Puri was part of last year's Detroit program, which focused on rebuilding the community through innovation and entrepreneurship. She described student attitudes toward the academy as being neutral, but not negative. 

She felt that many of the sessions were not pertinent to her program because her program was domestic. Additionally, she believed the sessions discussed ideas that were common sense and not necessarily the most meaningful. 

“I think [the sessions] were pretty vague. I don’t think it was a waste of time but I don’t know if it was the most valuable thing,” Puri said. 

But Puri acknowledged that she had had prior experience in traveling and volunteering. The training could have been more meaningful to those who had not yet engaged with volunteering, she noted. 

Junior Anna Merryman worked last year on an independent project in Cambodia, where she partnered with aid organization World Vision International. She said the academy was a welcome transition. Even though each person is going to a different place, she said it can still be helpful to broadly talk about how to deal with change.

The academy is not the only source of preparation for students. Group projects are required to meet prior to the academy's start in May. 

At Shah’s group meetings, she provides a broad scope of what the students will observe in India—from the country's cultural values, religions and etiquette to the backgrounds of the home-stay families and the education system in India. She also gives suggested readings and invites her students to cultural programs.

“I’m over-pleased with the behavior of my students—the way they adjusted to the local environment and culture and the way in which they respectfully adjusted to NGO culture," Shah said. "Their capacity to adapt was amazing."

Merryman indicated independent student research can also be valuable, as she did for her independent project. 

Prior to leaving for Cambodia, she researched how the Pol Pot genocide caused mistrust within the country and how the nation is still learning to come together and heal. It was not until she arrived in Cambodia that she learned about the Chbab Srey, a code of conduct for Cambodian women that has been taught for generations. The rules reinforce traditional gender roles for women. 

For her, it was important to be aware of this culture when speaking to young girls raised in Cambodia. 

“To understand history is to understand culture,” Merryman explained. “To go into a culture without understanding the background and basic narrative, you’re not going to be able to really engage with them, and you’re not going to be fully shaped and come in with an attitude that responds to what needs to be done.”

As a volunteer, Merryman did not want to come in as a foreigner and instruct the citizens on the “right way” to live. Instead, she hoped to help empower people to speak out about the matter. 

DukeEngage Academy was significant in helping her understand that, Merryman said, supplementing her independent research.

Room for improvement

Junior Grant Besner participated in DukeEngage two years ago in the Vietnam program, which focuses on building infrastructure and teaching youth. He said that nothing can adequately prepare a student to volunteer in a foreign community and culture, and the most learning occurred while struggling at his site. 

Besner still found the academy to be a positive experience, noting that he would not have been as open-minded and as ready to go to Vietnam without the academy. He returned to DukeEngage Academy last year to be a DukeEngage Academy Leader, and he shared his story and facilitated workshops with professors. 

But he suggested there is room for improvement. 

One main issue Besner had with the academy was the workshop on how to represent DukeEngage on a resume. He said that while it is important to acknowledge this experience on a resume, this workshop should not have a place at the academy. Another issue was the outlook students take towards the sessions.

“Being an instructor, I was really frustrated at a general blasé attitude toward the sessions we were leading,” Besner said.

He noted that many students feel the academy is a formality they must attend, and he wishes he paid more attention to certain workshops when he was a participant. 

For example, one workshop focused on teaching with limited resources, so the students had to teach a lesson using random items obtained outside and from the trash. He said this activity turned out to be applicable to his site, where he had only a whiteboard and the desks broke down. 

However, not all workshops are as creative and interactive. Besner said he found many of the workshops on the first day tedious and ineffective because they were simply lectures. 

Besner explained that he wants the academy to be primarily hands-on and focused on narratives of previous experiences because they are more engaging and impactful for the students. 

He said it is difficult to take something away from the academy unless you are actually doing something and listening to narratives, which cover a wide range of topics. Casper said the academy has been trying to use fewer powerpoint presentations. 

But at the end of the day, Besner said that it is up to the student to get as much as they can from both the academy and the volunteering experience, no matter what their initial reasons for participating in DukeEngage. 

“It really doesn't matter the reasons why you’re going, if your reasons are pure or not,” he said. “It’s inconsequential because once you’re there, what you take away is much more meaningful than the reasons that you actually go.”

Changes going forward?

Mlyn and Casper said that there has been discussion about changing the format of DukeEngage, for example requiring a course for all students or creating a house course. 

Although these ideas are being considered, Casper noted they might not be feasible given busy student schedules. Engineers, student athletes and ROTC members would all be ineligible due to their full course load, Casper explained. This is in addition to sometimes spotty attendance at house courses. 

“It would exclude a lot of people from a program that, from its very beginning, was designed to include as many people as possible,” she said. 

Every year, DukeEngage conducts a survey before, directly after and six months after the program. Casper said 83 to 85 percent of respondents in the first 2016 post-survey indicated DukeEngage Academy adequately prepared them for their experience. In 2017, she said the number increased to between 85 and 89 percent.

“[DukeEngage Academy] is something we’re very proud of, and I think Duke should take great pride in it,” Mlyn said. “There’s something about Duke undergraduates and the president of Duke and everybody who’s doing the training together on East Campus for two days, taking over East Campus, having the richest, most meaningful conversations about undergraduate civic engagement in the country.”


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