Making a Difference Abroad and At Home

Friday, October 10, 2014
By April Dudash

Duke cultural anthropologist Charlie Piot, right, brought six students to Togo over the summer as part of DukeEngage, a program that provides undergraduates with service project opportunities internationally and domestically. Photo courtesy of Charlie Piot

Six Duke students spent two summer months in Togo, teaching teens in the small African country how to write creatively and use the Internet.

The students, led by Duke cultural anthropologist Charlie Piot, experienced the Togolese culture and countryside, which was dotted with straw-roofed houses that had no running water and electricity and where families lived off one dollar per week.

“The anthropologist’s mission is to teach people respect for cultural differences, the way other people live in the world,” said Piot, who has conducted research in the country for 30 years. “It’s easy to imagine that the way we do things is the only way or is the best way. The anthropologist aims to lets people know that there is more than one way to organize the world.”

The Togo program was one of the 40 DukeEngage initiatives that took place around the globe this summer. DukeEngage, which provides full funding to select undergraduates who want to participate in a service project internationally or domestically, sent this year’s select students and program leaders to 46 countries and nine states.

Many of the programs are led by Duke staff and faculty, whose academic interests help students connect their DukeEngage experience to their broader experience at Duke, said Eric Mlyn, executive director of DukeEngage and assistant vice provost for civic engagement.

There were 70 staff and faculty members involved this summer, their responsibilities ranging from leading a group program to serving as mentors for independent projects. Some leaders have an intimate connection with their host community; they’ve grown up there or have conducted research in the region for several years.

“That kind of authentic connection with the community, which many of our faculty have, is exactly what we want our program directors to bring,” Mlyn said. “We also want them to think about when the students come back, what kind of courses they take, what kind of things they want to do to connect DukeEngage to the Duke curriculum.”

Duke music professor Hsiao-Mei Ku grew up in Guangzhou, in southern China, in a school system where grades heavily determined a student’s future, she said. Her DukeEngage program stems from her past educational experiences.

Ku and 13 students visited No. 9 Middle School in Zhuhai, where they encouraged Chinese students to enroll in classes in the arts created by Duke students. At the end of two months, the Duke and middle school students performed a joint concert for 2,500 people, on a stage set up in the middle of a soccer field.

“American education encourages that you step out of your comfort zone, to seek something that you feel is fulfilling to your soul, to your faith, to your ideals,” Ku said. “The arts can play that part.”

About 9,000 miles away in Miami, Fla., eight Duke students volunteered with organizations that benefit immigrant families such as FANM, which provides services for Haitian women and their families. During their trip, students learned about the needs of the growing Latino and Caribbean populations in South Florida and the U.S.

Jenny Snead Williams, executive director of the Latino/a Studies in the Global South Program at Duke and one of DukeEngage Miami’s program leaders, said the new DukeEngage Miami program enabled her to take her research outside the walls of Duke.

“DukeEngage has provided me the opportunity to do precisely what we want students to do, to learn about a topic through experience, outside of words on paper,” she said.