Engaging Alumni

January 31, 2009
Pay it forward: Winston-Salem club volunteers pack high-protein meals for Guatemalan families.

Pay it forward: Winston-Salem club volunteers pack high-protein meals for Guatemalan families. Cameron Howard

From networking breakfasts to sports-viewing parties, the Duke Alumni Association (DAA) offers alumni myriad ways to stay connected to the university through clubs programs in more than 100 cities around the world. Thanks to the DAA board's Civic Engagement Committee, alumni now have additional opportunities to socialize while working together on community-based service projects.

Events in two pilot cities this past spring and fall were greeted with enthusiasm by participants, who represented a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and interests. Organizers of both pilot programs met with community partners in advance to identify projects that addressed specific needs, and participants learned about the principles of service learning before projects got under way. Both programs have built-in reflection and assessment components to help alumni explore the implications and benefits of service and of collaborating with community groups.

In May, the Kansas City club kicked off the Collegebound program, aimed at helping disadvantaged high-school juniors and seniors navigate the college admissions process. (Collegebound is a component of Operation Breakthrough, a nonprofit outreach initiative.) In August, the Duke volunteers began helping the students—many of whom will be the first in their families to attend college—prepare for the ACT exams and gather the necessary paperwork: applications, academic records, letters of recommendation, awards, and honors.

The alumni volunteers are also helping the Collegebound students explore scholarship opportunities and have even taken a few to colleges for campus tours. The project will continue throughout the 2008-09 academic year, with the goal of becoming an ongoing initiative similar to the Duke Club of Washington's Partnership In Education program, a collaboration with Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School and the Community Academy Public Charter Schools.

Kansas City alumni helped local high-schoolers begin the college admissions process.

Kansas City alumni helped local high-schoolers begin the college admissions process. Sandy McGuire

"Duke alumni volunteers in Kansas City are filling a critical need in the lives of students whose resources are limited and whose expectations for attending college are low," says Dawn Taylor '89, who helped organize the event. "Ultimately, these volunteers can play a small role in preparing Collegebound students for productive, self-sufficient lives."

In mid-October, the Winston-Salem club organized Stop Hunger Now, a Saturday-morning event that brought together dozens of Duke alumni, their children, and volunteers from Reynolds High School, where the program was held. Spearheaded by Jeff Howard '76 and Carson Howard '76, the event drew more than sixty volunteers, who packed 10,000 high-protein, dehydrated meals bound for school-lunch programs in Guatemala. The meals can last as long as five years and are easily reconstituted with boiling water.

When the last box was sealed and labeled, participants gathered to hear from one of the volunteers, Girish Mishra '88, an associate professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest University's medical school. He told the group that the service project had personal resonance for him: He had grown up in a mud hut in an impoverished rural community in India, where he and other villagers were lucky to have one meal a day. After his family immigrated to the U.S., Mishra and his sister, Suman Mishra Golla '91, eventually earned scholarships to attend Duke.

"Duke alums from age seventy-two to twenty-two participated in this event and thoroughly enjoyed interacting with one another as we accomplished a most worthy goal," says Jeff Howard. "We had fun, got to meet some great folks, and made a real difference to those most in need."

This spring, the Atlanta and Bay Area (California) clubs will launch their own pilot projects. Organizers are working closely with local alumni and nonprofit groups to determine a good fit between volunteer interests and community needs. Encouraged by the initial success of the Kansas City and Winston-Salem events, members of the Civic Engagement Committee will sponsor Civic Engagement Week in the fall of 2009. Clubs around the country will sponsor their own community-service projects, working with DAA board and staff members on planning and logistics.

"The long-term goal of the Community Engagement Committee is to have a focused, multi-year plan to introduce the alumni community to civic engagement," says Chris O'Neill '95, assistant director of regional programming for the DAA. "We want to encourage discussions about civic-engagement principles and then provide focused, community-tailored opportunities to put those principles into practice."