DukeEngage's decade of student learning by doing

The program has furthered the university's bedrock mission of civic engagement.
Writer: 
February 7, 2018

The most frustrating thing was the mason. “He spoke, maybe, two words of English,” says senior Lily Coad, who spent the summer after her sophomore year as a DukeEngage student in Kochi, India, surprisingly, building a garden. Nobody expected him to speak English, of course. But nobody had expected to be working with him in the first place.

Expecting to spend eight weeks teaching English in a needy school, Coad’s cohort of ten DukeEngage students found themselves beaten to the classroom by another group of volunteers. One day per week they did prepare lesson plans and teach English vocabulary by getting the kids coloring and using flash cards, pretty much as they’d expected. But the rest of the time they spent creating a sustainable garden for the school instead. “So the kids would have something to eat besides rice,” Coad says. The work was far from unnecessary, but the students had expected to teach, not garden.

After a couple of weeks pulling weeds with no equipment more advanced than their hands, the group, under the tutelage of that mason, built large brick-and-mortar raised vegetable beds, communicating with the mason mostly by gesture. And, incidentally, trying to learn a most counter-Duke lesson: how not to excel.

“Some of us were engineers,” recalls Coad, a linguistics major. But the mason did not want to use his limited time and his few words of English to discuss whether the corner angles of the boxes measured exactly ninety degrees. “It just had to be good. It doesn’t have to be done this exact right Duke way,” Coad and her cohort finally understood. In a far-off place, in a different culture, speaking a different language, trying to do what was needed rather than what they expected to do, perfect was neither possible nor perhaps even desirable. “It took a lot for us to get past that.”

In the sometimes-counterintuitive world of civic engagement, letting go of the need to excel is part of the lesson. You may give Coad an A in DukeEngage, the ten-year-old civic-engagement program that has become one of Duke’s prime differentiators. In fact, applicants to Duke mention DukeEngage in their essays more than anything else—even more often than basketball, almost everyone connected with the program will tell you at one point or another. And as Coad experienced, DukeEngage has a complex mission, with two hoped-for outcomes in some ways at odds. You’re a Duke student! You can do anything! Go out there to some nonprofit, whether as near as Durham or as far off as Kochi, and change the world! On the other hand, go humbly, and come back changed yourself, and learn how small you truly are, how little you really know about this enormously complex world, and how hard it is to make real change.

“I think we, as universities, institutions like Duke, we’re a little bit schizophrenic,” says DukeEngage executive director Eric Mlyn. “We tell our students they can walk on water—and then we tell them, ‘Not so fast, you need to learn to walk first.’ We’re talking about making humility the theme of this year.” That, too, is a complex project: DukeEngage wants to teach humility while itself absorbing applause as Duke’s signature program and possibly the strongest program of its kind in the country. There’s complexity, too, around the program’s beginnings—with the lacrosse scandal.

YOU KNOW THE BASICS. In March 2006, false accusations of rape were made against members of the Duke lacrosse team. Then claims, counterclaims, allegations, charges, and the resulting cancellation of the team’s season. Along with ultimate settlements and damage assessments from various angles, it certainly spurred a great deal of reconsideration at Duke of its relationship with its community and the rest of the world. More, the cause célèbre of the case threatened to become the dominant narrative people thought of when they considered Duke. So apart from the work it was doing to address the problems the case brought to light, by the next fall administrators decided to do something about that narrative.

“We had a project,” says then-president Richard H. Brodhead, “trying to change the monotony of that story.”

They called it the Big Idea. Then-provost Peter Lange, now professor of political science and public policy, had regular meetings with what he called “the den of ten,” a group of administrators who considered many aspects of undergraduate student culture and “the kind of experience we were giving students.” Looking at Duke’s various projects in civic engagement—in getting its students out of the classroom and into the world through the many agencies trying to improve it—“the idea started to percolate that we should do something that would strengthen our identity in social engagement and civic involvement and that would be an appropriate substantive response to any reputational damage from lacrosse,” says Lange.

A task force led by Mlyn, then-director of the Robertson Scholars program, got the job of producing an actionable program, and its members didn’t tarry. “We convened in September 2006,” Mlyn recalls. “We had a report in December. We had raised $30 million in February 2007, and we had ninety students in the field in the summer of 2007.” Yes, $30 million. While Mlyn was thinking through what a fully funded program, with domestic and international community partner organizations, available to every student who wanted to participate would look like, Brodhead went to Seattle and sat down in a coffee shop with Melinda Gates ’86, M.B.A. ’87, who has served on the Duke board of trustees and as chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “She just got it in one second,” he says, and gave $15 million to get the program started.

When news of the gift came out, Brodhead says, “The Duke Endowment then called me to complain that we hadn’t asked them to match the gift.” He asked, the endowment matched, and DukeEngage had $30 million for its brand new civic-engagement program. Ten years later, nearly 25 percent of each graduating class has participated in DukeEngage.

NOT THAT DUKE was new to civic engagement—or social entrepreneurship, as it’s sometimes called, or social innovation. Whatever the name, the programs always have some variation on the same theme: getting students into community organizations working for public good, where they can see how their classroom learning applies in the “real world,” provide some hands-on help, and develop their own skills. “Civic engagement, though not always called that, had already been a theme for several years,” Lange says of Duke. “The blending of classroom and outside.” A new strategic plan for Duke adopted late in 2006 included “knowledge in the service of society” as one of Duke’s enduring themes. DukeEngage is “a program that caught the wave of what is an emerging interest in civic engagement in American higher education,” says Stephen Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education. “It was something that was in the air.” DukeEngage and programs like it have grown partially because, says Mlyn, “across the globe the role of the state has diminished. When was the last time you heard a student say, ‘I want to work for the betterment of the planet—I want to work for government’?”

“For institutions like Duke,” he says, “we are elite, relatively wealthy institutions. It would be unethical for us not to use our resources to improve the world.” And institutions are doing so. Campus Compact, an organization focusing on civic engagement, was founded in 1985 by the presidents of Brown, Georgetown, and Stanford universities and the president of the Education Commission of the States; it has grown to a coalition of more than a thousand colleges and universities. And Ashoka, the global organization promoting social entrepreneurship, was founded in 1980. In 2008, it expanded to create AshokaU, focused on higher education, which now sponsors the Changemaker Campus program, designating institutions leading in social innovation. Forty-four campuses worldwide have attained that designation (including Duke); Duke helped design the program, and many of the initial meetings took place on the Duke campus.

Lange says that though DukeEngage emerged from the lacrosse scandal, “it wasn’t a PR move.” The very indenture of James B. Duke that created the school noted that initial training should focus on those who “can do most to uplift mankind,” with the ultimate goal of “lives of skilled and ethical service.” Duke was concerned with affecting the world around it from the start.

That focus became somewhat somnolent as Duke weathered the Depression, World War II, and the civil rights era. Like students around the nation, students at Duke became more active in the 1960s, but regarding its modern focus on the community around it, then-president Terry Sanford, in his famous “Outrageous Ambitions” speech—his final address to the annual meeting of the faculty, in 1984 —in some ways laid the groundwork for this mindset. “Duke aspires to leave its students with an abiding concern for justice,” he said, “with a resolve for compassion and concern for others, with minds unfettered by racial and other prejudices, with a dedication to service to society, with an intellectual sharpness, and with an ability to think straight now and throughout life.”

Things happened fast: The Hart Leadership Program, a yearlong program in what has since become the Sanford School that includes a community group internship, took shape in 1986, becoming what original director Bruce Payne called the “ ‘thinking’ wing of the emerging student community-service movement.” The presidency of Nannerl O. Keohane, which saw, for example, the founding of the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, further developed that dedication to service. In 1996, students started LEAPS (Learning through Experience, Action, Partnership, and Service), a student group that served as a liaison among faculty, staff, and community groups to encourage service learning. Under Keohane’s presidency Duke hired J. Gregory Dees, one of the pioneers of social entrepreneurship in education when he was at Stanford in the 1990s. He came to Duke in 2002 and was instrumental in setting up the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at the Fuqua School of Business, which, though it focuses on graduate rather than undergraduate students, shares much of the get-the-students-out-there DNA with DukeEngage.

In fact, Brodhead says he associated Duke with civic engagement by the time he came to serve as president, recalling his own inaugural address focusing on Duke’s already strong tradition of public service. “What I’ve always thought is crucial to understand,” he says, “is DukeEngage is not an extracurricular activity. These things are education. They’re not something you did in the summer during your education. They are education.”

AND THAT EDUCATION COMES IN MANY FORMS. Consider the story of sophomore Tommaso Babucci, who got some rather unexpected education in the summer of 2017 when he rode his bicycle to a Detroit grocery store. With Nalini Gupta, his fellow DukeEngage Detroit participant working at the Detroit Food Academy (DFA), he was preparing material for the group’s social-media sites; they went to the store to buy food for a photo shoot.

After the bike ride, things went south rather rapidly.

With a life-threatening food allergy, Babucci had asked at the restaurant where he ate lunch whether the food contained any sesame. The owner assured him it did not—incorrectly, it turned out, and at the grocery Babucci recognized the first stirrings of anaphylactic shock. Naturally, he had left his backpack containing his epi pen and medication in the DFA office, so he called for help from his cell phone. “I was like, ‘Hello, I’m about to have an allergic reaction. Can you come in less than five minutes? Because I’m going to die.’”

Within two minutes Wayne State University police arrived and guided an ambulance to Babucci. Everything worked out—because Babucci called the Wayne State University police instead of dialing 911, which would have connected him to the city of Detroit Police Department. Trying to make do with the limited funds of a struggling city, the Detroit Police Department is stretched thin, and students participating in DukeEngage Detroit are told in orientation that should a crisis arise, Detroit police could take hours to arrive. They should instead call Wayne State, in whose dorms the sixteen students spend their eight-week Detroit sojourn. A small detail—tiny, in some ways. But it probably kept Babucci’s adventure a story instead of a tragedy. Each DukeEngage program has a faculty leader, and the Detroit program is led by Matt Nash, Duke managing director for social entrepreneurship. Nash grew up in the area, so he has even deeper Detroit relationships, but all faculty leaders foster local relationships. It’s part of the way DukeEngage works.

Mlyn loves this story. “Ah!” he says. “The police are overwhelmed in Detroit. That’s experiential learning.” He also notes that DukeEngage handles such problems quickly and confidently: A DukeEngage administrator was on the phone with Babucci soon after he arrived at the hospital. As DukeEngage has become immense, its capacity to know its communities has grown. It’s one thing to coordinate organization placements, living quarters, and light supervision for a dozen or so students in dozens of places all over the world, but for DukeEngage, assisting students who become ill or getting students safely away from unexpected unrest all over the world has become quotidian. The program has contracts with agencies like International SOS and one staffer on call twenty-four hours a day over the summer. In recent years staffers have raised a ceremonial glass of prosecco when the last student returns safe in August, but Mlyn says it’s all par for the course now: “These incidents that happened early on were crises; now they’re what we do.”

Babucci and Gupta learned, experientially, a lot more than the difficulties of policing a sprawling city with few tax dollars. Among the projects DFA offers is an afterschool program that brings kitchen equipment to high schools; students learn things like recipe and portion math, kitchen skills, and money management, and, eventually, menu planning for a pop-up restaurant. Gupta, a sophomore economics major, says, “I learned so much—mostly about my incompetence.” Growing up in a family where she was sometimes counseled to limit extracurriculars so as not to be too busy, she had her eyes opened when DFA workers explained that among DFA programming benefits was simply offering students somewhere to go after school. “It’s so easy to make poverty into food and shelter,” she says. “But something to do,” she says amazed—it had never occurred to her that simply having access to programming could be life-changing. What’s more, for all her academic skills, “the kids who came out of that academy knew more and were more capable and able than I was.”

THAT HUMILITY has become one of DukeEngage’s main goals—and one of its main challenges. To prepare students, each summer the program runs the Fortin Foundation DukeEngage Academy on East Campus just after the spring semester ends. To give students some training in what their experiences might be like, whether abroad or in Detroit or Seattle or Durham, over two days the Academy offers panel discussions of community partner organizations, classes on the ethics of social engagement, and games reminding students of all they do not know. They play Barnga, for example, a card game of shifting rules and rotating players that students play mostly silently—they are allowed to say only the word “barnga,” a stand-in for linguistic and other challenges of communication. Players also move from table to table, learning, presumably, that even when they think they know the rules, they probably don’t. Participants experience the frustration that many low-income and minority people contend with growing up, and emerge with a deeper understanding of the real world.

Community partners regale students with advice as simple as the importance of showing up on time and of treating their commitment as a work obligation, not as a volunteer opportunity that can give way to weekend travel or a cousin’s wedding. And among other things, the seminars discuss respectful story-sharing, warning DukeEngage students against producing thoughtless blog posts and Instagram feeds by showing them, for example, BarbieSavior.com, which satirizes privileged ecotourism by placing Barbie dolls against backdrops of exotic poverty. (Barbie Savior’s Instagram motto: “It’s not about me ... but it kind of is.”)

Some of it takes, and some of it doesn’t. After her 2017 summer in Detroit, sophomore Leah Abrams expressed frustration in her Chronicle column. “I read countless blog posts that made it clear that the student had not come in with sufficient knowledge of their summer destination,” she wrote, suggesting a semester-long course to fully prepare the four hundred-plus students Duke unleashes each summer. Mlyn doesn’t see that as necessary, but he invited Abrams to visit, and they spoke at length. “They were receptive to my experiences,” Abrams says. “They’re not trying to pretend that this is a perfect program.” They agreed both that the academy gave students warning against making ill-considered or thoughtless posts, and that nonetheless students sometimes make them just the same. Abrams still yearns for more training or selectivity, and Mlyn still leans toward giving every student a chance.

Mlyn sees Abrams’ experience as, if not entirely positive from her perspective, a complete DukeEngage win. “That’s what we dreamt of eleven years ago, was having this conversation,” he says. “Students come back and say, ‘Was that worth it? Your investment in me?’ We’ve problematized civic engagement on this campus. And civic engagement needs to be problematized”—thoroughly and critically examined like any other topic. Through DukeEngage, civic engagement has become, as Brodhead says, not an augmentation to education but part of the Duke education itself.

Despite her criticisms, Abrams describes her summer in Detroit as life-changing: “not necessarily because I found the career I wanted or even that I learned about concepts I had never learned before.” She spent her days working with TechTown Detroit, a downtown business incubator that provides space for struggling start-ups, especially those by minority entrepreneurs. Abrams certainly gained actual work experience there. “Our project was first looking at the way TechTown records demographic info,” she recalls.

“Like—they weren’t doing it.” That was a problem a Duke student could sink her teeth into, and she set about organizing their information, interviewing clients, and coming up with ways TechTown could make its client base look more like their community. “There were a couple of moments for me where, ‘I’m doing the coolest stuff right now!’ ” she recalls. On the other hand, different organization members would have different spreadsheets tracking information in different ways, and getting answers and coordination or even attention from busy people was rarely easy. “So there was a lot of waiting for that,” she says. “That was very important for me to learn.”

Like Coad in Kochi, she had to learn to provide the kind of work her client wanted. “I may have thought of the perfect application to use hypothesis testing and p-values to represent their demographic reflectivity,” she says. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what’s going to be most helpful to the community partners themselves. And that’s what the summer is actually about.”

Beyond that real-world business lesson, Abrams noticed that the machine in the women’s restroom that dispensed sanitary products was always empty. She wrote a blog post about that, and about the message it sent to women working at the incubator. “By the time that I left,” she says, “they had a cart of free female hygienic products. That was really cool: That’s one tangible thing I left there.”

SMALL ACTIONS, small lessons, small accomplishments. Which raises the question: Is it working? Is it worth it? It costs about $9,000 to send each DukeEngage student hither or yon to help some nonprofit. Mlyn often gets the question: If helping some community group is your goal, is that the best way to spend $9,000? The answer, of course, is no—if your only goal was to help the nonprofit, you’d send them the money. But Mlyn notes, “My job is to educate Duke students” to a lifetime of considering the social impact of all their actions, whether they join a nonprofit or become a bond trader, and that shows up in any number of ways.

Peter Shi ’16 calls his DukeEngage experience “transformative”—he had planned to become a doctor; now he’s a data scientist at Cisco. “I think the best way to do civic engagement is if you have the time and resources to give back to the community,” he says. Outside of work he’s involved in a couple of app start-up ventures. But also, he joined the highly civic-minded Rotary Club. A small thing, perhaps, but meaningful.

Or consider Alex Sonageri ’14, who in 2012 went to Guatemala, where he worked on health-and-wellness projects, working with a special-education school called Mayan Hope that provided services to special-needs children in Nebaj, Guatemala. “During my dayto- day, I work in finance,” he says, “like many Duke alumni.” But he’s never lost touch with Mayan Hope. “We’ve rebuilt the website, started a fundraising campaign”—and the campaign raised enough money to buy a piece of land on which to construct a new school. “I couldn’t agree more with Eric [Mlyn]’s line of thinking. What he and the program have done for me will stay with me to the end of my days. And it will encourage me to do far more good than $9,000. You can go into other careers and still have an influence, and still remain true to the credo of DukeEngage.”

Erin Worsham, director of CASE, the social entrepreneurship program at the Fuqua School of Business, says her students address the same issue. Half the student population of Fuqua participates in CASE, so “there’s a question sometimes: Is half the student body going into social impact or nonprofit?” Of course not. “What we’re hoping is that through their engagement with us they’re learning how their decisions have an impact on more than just the bottom line.”

TOMMASO BABUCCI USED almost exactly those words when he described his takeaways from his summer in Detroit. “I wanted to learn a mindset that I can carry with me throughout my life.”

He thinks he and Gupta did. For example, the two helped redesign the process by which the DFA students made Mitten Bites, a healthy snack the group sells to raise funds. And as much as they enjoyed practicing and learning about cost optimization, they may have learned most when they realized they couldn’t improve things by cutting employees. Of the DFA managers, Gupta says, “their job was not just to teach [students] how to cook. It was…also to make sure they have someone to talk to about their dreams and hopes.”

Students go, encounter the reality of making the world a better place, and return changed—each changed in his or her own way. According to DukeEngage statistics, 70 percent say they grew personally; 80 percent say the experience influenced their career plans. Like Jennifer Heffernan ’08, one of the original 2007 DukeEngage cohort, a then-premed student who spent her summer in New Orleans, cleaning up from Hurricane Katrina. She was shocked at how much still needed to be done years after the levees breached: “City hall was kind of in mayhem,” she recalls of her time helping with the city’s public-health department. “We didn’t have desks. We brought our own computers and set them up on filing cabinets and used other filing cabinets as our chairs.” She says she definitely arrived naïve—shocked by the social and institutional problems she witnessed, and thinking “that by showing up at a protest for two hours, a cute little Duke kid, I was going to help.”

Her time in New Orleans left her not overwhelmed but inspired. She realized that changing the world was going to take a lot more than knowing statistics about injustice—and that thinking on a more global scale was her strength. Instead of the one-at-a-time approach of medicine, she realized, “I’m much better equipped to work at more of a macro scale,” so she left being a physician behind. Today she’s an administrator with Health Care Service Corporation, the largest customer-owned health insurer in the United States. “Take a little bit of politics, a little bit of common sense, put it together with behavioral economics,” she says, “and it’s health care.”

Small transformations, small things learned, and small changes made, but they add up. DukeEngage looks back on ten years with a clear record: 4,000 students have given 1.25 million volunteer hours to seventy-nine countries on six continents—and thirty-seven cities in the United States. But this is a moment for improvement, not self-congratulation. Like the students, DukeEngage itself grows and changes, and Mlyn sees that as one of the great benefits of the program. “Duke did not wait and reflect on how to do this and then do it,” he says. “Just as students learn to be global citizens by doing, DukeEngage modeled what we believe in.

“We learned how to do DukeEngage by doing it.”

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.