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Five years of DukeEngage

As DukeEngage celebrates its fifth year this summer, the University’s community deserves to rejoice. In my five years of courting DukeEngage, I have witnessed the program’s systematic expansion and successful growth from about 80 students in 2007 to more than 400 this year, from four categories of civic engagement opportunities available to applicants to a lengthy list of a variety of categories, from less than a handful of domestic programs to 11 programs and from five international programs to 30. On the national level, few other universities appear to be able to duplicate the Duke brand of DukeEngage. Behind these accomplishments, however, lurk some potential problems. As with any successful program, there is the desire to quantify its impact, but engaging in such an activity would have an adverse effect on the program’s commitment to volunteer service and civic engagement. A relevant and timely question is” “What are the challenges ahead regarding DukeEngage?”

DukeEngage’s mission is to empower students to “address critical human needs through immersive service, in the process transforming students, advancing the University’s educational mission and providing meaningful assistance to communities in the U.S. and abroad.” In assessing, as well as appraising, this triangular impact—students, community partners and Duke—one finds that the challenge facing DukeEngage is that the three are not directly related and their objectives do not necessarily correlate with one another.

For Duke students, DukeEngage encourages students to challenge themselves, and change their world. But through experience we know that humans do not challenge themselves voluntarily. There are often ulterior motives and reasons for their behavior, and Duke students are no exception to this rule. Whether stated or not, most students choose a DukeEngage program for reasons related to their future professional careers, such as enriching their CVs, for personal reasons, such as revisiting their home ancestries, or simply to provide an exciting diversion for the summer. Although these motives are both intellectually understandable and politically acceptable, none of them should be the driving force behind participating in DukeEngage. As I conceptualize it, DukeEngage should draw students based on its stated mission and the moral imperative of volunteerism. To remedy this defect, there is a need to advise DukeEngagers on the intellectual and moral dimensions of engagement—the advantages of expanding oneself beyond one’s comfort zones of race and place and the morality that all should strive to improve the lives of their less fortunate fellows whenever the opportunity presents itself.

For community partners abroad, the Americanization of NGOs (as it is called by civil society experts) may be problematic for those engaging internationally. There’s always the uninvited, implicit answer: “You think you know our problems better and here you are coming to help us.” Another informative mode of discourse related to community partners poses the following questions: What values can a Duke freshman bring to displaced women and their families in Colombia? Or how much can DukeEngagers do in eight weeks to advance the conditions of migrant children from rural China living in Beijing? A DukeEngager told me in 2010 in Cairo that his personal expenses to come to this country could have hired five Egyptian teachers for 12 months to do his work.

A related reality is that addressing global problems is conceptually uncertain and operationally difficult. Most community-based problems are mere manifestations of socio-politically rooted causes. A short and superficial tackling of the “symptoms” of such a problem is often more beneficial to the DukeEngager than it is for the community itself. On one level, the common saying among DukeEngagers—that DukeEngage is an investment for Duke students more so than for local community partners—is true. Furthermore, if DukeEngage’s mission includes addressing real-world problems and attending to human needs, what happens when that world is no longer a friendly settlement, as is the case in Haiti, or if that world reprioritizes its human needs in a different political context, as is the case in Egypt? To what extent should DukeEngage reconcile the volatile community partners’ needs in a risk-laden world with Duke’s legal responsibilities in our own litigious society?

For Duke University there are layers of challenges for the future of DukeEngage that go beyond maintaining operational costs through a stream of funding. For example, how does the University identify the unit of DukeEngage? Is it an academic unit? Or is it a component that helps brand the name of the University? If it is an academic unit, then questioning its scholarship and academic excellence is warranted. If it is designed to ensure the branding of Duke, then we must acknowledge that it is neither cost effective nor sustainable in the long run.

In my view, DukeEngage is no ivory tower project, and it is certainly not a Peace Corps modulus for options in volunteer work outside the United States. The identity of DukeEngage should not be located solely in either the private realm of Duke or the public sphere. It is high time that institutions of higher education look beyond the bottom-line and serve as examples in philanthropic investment, locally and internationally. There need be no other reason but a belief in the virtue of connections and engagement. Obviously Duke cannot be only an institution of civic engagement, but any institution in which there are members who are engaged in public service is an engaged institution. Duke’s responsibility to DukeEngage includes providing the means and mechanisms that forge a deep emotional investment in its mission for the students who choose to participate. In celebrating the fifth year of DukeEngage, I ask not at once for a different DukeEngage, but at once for Duke to be more engaged in the ideals and moral necessities of DukeEngage.

Mbaye Lo is a professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and Duke Islamic Studies Center. He is the Program Director of DukeEngage Cairo and the recipient of the 2011 DukeEngage Program Director Award.