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Engaging Responsibly


This Wednesday, the newest round of hopeful DukeEngage applicants will be submitting the last of their forms for the well-known service learning program. This deadline marks another year of curious and excited scholars ready to commit themselves to an immersive eight weeks of living abroad and working on a wide variety of humanitarian projects. However, as wonderful as this opportunity may appear on the surface, it isn’t free of valid and important critique. The core components of this program require—and have much to gain from—serious consideration of questions surrounding western saviorism and student intent. With this, as well as the nearing paperwork submission deadlines in mind, questions of how Duke students should be approaching these types of international undertakings are more than worth exploring in earnest.

When applying to DukeEngage, like any other summer program, it’s useful to reflect on motivations for seeking entry. While a possible allure could be the opportunity to travel to another country and experience an entirely different part of the world, the main purpose of the various group programs is a form of community engagement to benefit the specific regions students will be living in. However, a mistake often made by overly eager Duke undergraduates is the assumption that they can solve a complex, multifaceted social or economic ill with a simple summer project. Students may have a wide variety of skills to offer and a profoundly genuine desire to help, but it’s important to reign in the impulse to act as a benevolent Western savior, especially in areas with a history of being negatively affected by colonization and imperialism. Understanding the contemporary international positionality and historical relations of a host country can help students understand the political dynamics of their presence in that nation.

For those who are accepted, the prospect of living in a foreign country can be equal parts exciting and daunting—especially for students who haven’t left the shores of the United States before. After all, you’re expected to leave behind the simple familiarities of home like ease of communication and cultural fluency. It is this potential discomfort that can cause students to find themselves sometimes using negative or critical language to describe the living conditions of a foreign country, especially those with lower GDPs and average population incomes. While these knee-jerk reactions and complaints may seem innocuous if only muttered between fellow students, they are steeped in superiority and disrespect. It would serve future DukeEngage participants well to reserve condemnations and think critically about why such negative thoughts arise in the first place, as they almost always involve a degree of privilege, particularly in the context of foreign experiences.

Programs like DukeEngage contain so much potential for allowing Duke students to interact with the world beyond the gothic architecture of campus. However, if these trips truly wish to fulfill their mission of creating insightful and knowledgeable global citizens that care deeply about improving the lives of people everywhere, there needs to be continued emphasis on the intermingling social and political dynamics whenever Westerners set foot on foreign soil. Even if the intentions of students are pure and they believe in the creed of selfless, humanitarian service, it can be easy to fall into problematic habits and demeanors. Ultimately, it’s the duty of DukeEngage and future participants to pledge their devotion to understanding the complicated role they play and how easily they can cause more harm than good. 

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