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Whose world are we changing?

overcaffeinated convictions

“Challenge yourself. Change your world.” 

All Duke students have encountered this simple mantra, whether through listings of summer programs or flyers push-pinned to the wall or lecture-wide announcements. They summarize the quintessential, widely-publicized, transformative Duke student experience: Duke Engage. 

Borne out of the Duke lacrosse scandal, this program has accomplished much in the realm of recognition and rebranding. When I visited Duke in high school, the highlight of the  tour was talk of this fully-funded and seemingly utopian summer only our institution could offer. 

And for many, Duke Engage lives up to expectations. Some of my professors and upperclassmen peers have spoken highly of the opportunities presented in DukeEngage Pathway Projects and local placements.

However, I was exposed to a different perspective when the ICS Director of Undergraduate studies, Catherine Mathers, stood before my class and asked us to thoughtfully consider the possible harm programs like DukeEngage abroad (as well as some domestic programs) might do. 

For context, our class had previously taken part in a discussion about the detrimental impacts of voluntourism, especially in countries deemed, often through racialized language, “primitive” and “underdeveloped” and “violent.” We’d watched When I Say Africa,  a film produced by Professor Mathers in which a mostly white group of high school students travels to Tanzania to build houses. One of the girls in the group notices the locals discreetly tearing down the students’ deeply flawed construction work and rebuilding correctly each morning before sunrise. She comes to the realization that her volunteer group was creating more work for the locals–who were already aware of the resources necessary to aid their own communities. In fact, the entire premise of her service was built upon the paternal and colonial notion that white Americans knew more about Tanzania than the Tanzanians themselves. 

In many ways, DukeEngage contributes to the same notion. Its Bahamas program speaks of aiding “displaced youth” and “providing solutions aimed at minimizing adverse effects of Hurricane Dorian,” assuming that college students, probably none native to the Bahamas, have all of the solutions. DukeEngage China works with local orphanages, which are notorious for purposefully neglecting and abusing children to funnel money into the hands of profiteers and traffickers. 

The above are only a few examples of the damaging yet hegemonic belief of doing good while abroad. Those not specialized in a specific field would be hard-pressed to find any opportunity for which our service in another country–or even in another community–is efficient, useful, and sustainable. An eight-week exploration of Thailand or India or Ghana may satiate our desire to travel to a foreign nation, but it does little more than that. 

Voluntourism is inherently insidious because it is built upon the best of intentions. I am not attempting to assert a moral high ground. I am not faulting the individuals who have participated in Duke Engage internationally and been uniquely transformed for the better. After all, the first sentence of the mantra is “Challenge yourself;” most students are participating for ourselves

Instead, I am critiquing the system, promoted by the University, that praises us for inserting ourselves into a completely different culture and assuming that our assumptions are correct. I am critiquing a system that prioritizes spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on volunteers’ plane tickets above donating money to an on-the-ground frontline organization. 

To my peers and classmates: I am challenging us to question the idea that a summer volunteering abroad is a meaningful form of service. However, it can be a meaningful learning space. Many of us want to travel and explore and adventure; this hunger is valid. But setting foot in another country simply to educate ourselves and setting foot in another country attempting to educate others are different conceptswe must begin to disentangle volunteering from tourism.

My classmates and I discussed during my FOCUS class that if we do participate in DukeEngage abroad, we must analyze our actions every day to ensure that we are working as equitably as possible. Ethics are not black and white; we can and should ask questions about DukeEngage partner organizations and the history of Duke alongside the communities we are serving. And, if at all possible, we can continue a long-term relationship with our Duke Engage partners through our time in college. 

Professor Mathers wrote in an email, “Most importantly, students should make a commitment to learning as much as possible about the place they are going, preferably some language (not just regional but of the local people if possible) and to see DukeEngage as part of a broader and wide ranging education about a region or a global challenge.” 

DukeEngage asserts that participation will “change your world,” and perhaps we are changing our own worlds through new narratives and perspectives and friendships. But if “your world” also means the world outside oneself, how are we fulfilling this mission? And how is it fair to assume that this world is even ours to change

Lily Levin is a Trinity first-year. Her column, “overcaffeinated convictions,” runs on alternate Fridays. 

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