DukeEngage: Serving Duke Students

I never questioned that I would participate in DukeEngage. I always planned to do it, and I even highlighted it in my “Why Duke” essay as I something that attracted me because it offers a globalized learning experience.

There didn’t seem to be anything unappealing about going to a foreign country, or even just a big city in the states, serving a community for a few weeks, and returning to college with a fun, eye-opening experience that could double as the newest addition to my resume. However, as the deadline for international project applications nears, I find myself struggling with the implications of participating in a program — and there are a lot.

I should probably explain my newfound skepticism.

I’ve been involved with the Kenan Institute for Ethics since even before I stepped on campus, through the pre-orientation program Project Change, and currently through their Focus cluster and as a member of Team Kenan. In the few short months that I’ve been a student here, I’ve been constantly exposed to the questions that surround service. Why do we commit service? Is it okay to gain personally from acts of service? How can we ensure the enduring impact of our service even after we leave?

Wading through the pool of DukeEngage program descriptions, it was easy to find examples of “voluntourism”, where you travel more as a tourist than as a volunteer. Location is important, and many people will be attracted to service locations regardless of what service they will be doing. It seems natural to go visit the Taj Mahal while in India, or to go to a K-pop concert while in Seoul, but if the tourist attractions serve as bigger factors in choosing a program than interest in its service themes, the people we serve become justification for traveling to an exciting place. They themselves serve as mere side attractions.

“Voluntourism” can also go hand in hand with “hit-and-run” types of service programs: going into a community, maybe teaching for a few weeks, and leaving no lasting impact, while also abandoning relationships established during the experience. For example, I heard great things about the China-Zhuhai program; my friend from Duke Chorale participated last year and described it as a “highlight of her Duke experience so far”. But while the program’s participants seemed to have a lot of fun interacting with the students, I couldn’t help but wonder how the students felt when the DukeEngagers headed back to the U.S., while they were left to wait for the next batch of students the following summer, or the next batch of tourists who come ready to document their experience and leave.

The other problem lies in the relative lack of experience of Duke students. While DukeEngage programs do make efforts towards educating their participants, most people have not had first-hand experience serving refugees, tutoring kids in foreign countries, etc, not the mention the language barrier that is involved in international programs or in general working with people who don’t speak English, such as can be the case in migrant communities. Many of the skills that need to be pick up are learned on the job, so students are chosen specifically for their ability to adapt, learn quickly, and take initiative during their program, which are qualities that are strengthened during their experience. But learning on the job is perhaps at the expense of those we serve because people who offer more applicable skills could be in our place. In this way, DukeEngage serves us as students more than it serves the communities we engage with.

Of course, the problems that come with service programs are not exclusive to DukeEngage, and even the most well-intentioned organizations face ethical barriers. But service programs must place emphasis on effectively serving communities, creating lasting impact while being aware of ethical implications associated with their decisions. I wouldn’t expect all programs to address every one of these barriers, but I would at least want to engage in service within a culture of reflection and awareness, which is something I can’t guarantee in reading program descriptions.