Read the article below in its entirety and see a related video, including an interview with DukeEngage Executive Director Eric Mlyn (featured above), here.
How do students learn the skills necessary to work with those who are different from them? How do they come to understand the global ramifications of local actions? How does higher education effectively train this generation for the global workforce?
The answers to these questions can be found through international volunteer service, which is increasingly seen at a broad range of institutions of higher education in a multitude of forms.
“Most colleges and universities are engaging in something called internationalization of curricula, and the idea is that many universities realize their place in globalization and that it’s not just partnering with other universities and colleges around the world, or accepting international students to come to our campuses, but really embracing the idea that we are creating global citizens through our educational process,” says Amanda Moore McBride, PhD, associate professor and research director at the Center for Social Development (CSD) at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.
“While it is not new to higher education, international service pedagogy is at the threshold of a new era,” she says. “We have both the opportunity and responsibility in higher education to support and critically assess the international service performed by our students.”
McBride also directs the Gephardt Institute for Public Service at WUSTL.
International service in higher education takes many different forms, from internships and alternative spring breaks to study-abroad programs and credit-bearing international service-learning programs.
“I think students benefit from doing civic engagement work, whether it’s domestic or international, because primarily what these experiences do is take students out of their comfort zone,” says Eric Mlyn, PhD, executive director of DukeEngage, an international service program at Duke University.
“Whether they’re working in Durham, North Carolina, or in Haiti, students confront people who are different than themselves, they confront obstacles that they need to somehow deal with and overcome,” Mlyn says. “I think we are creating young leaders, we’re creating global citizens, and we’re creating a generation that will be deeply committed to civic engagement work, whether they are investment bankers or working for Teach for America.”
As the sun set over the city of Mombassa, Kenya, I found myself reflecting on the fourth summer of students’ DukeEngage experiences. As a boy, I had hoped that I would one day “see the world”. Years later, and on the heels of a one-week visit to our sites in southeastern Kenya, I feel privileged to direct a program that provides so many opportunities for Duke undergraduates to immerse themselves in communities around the globe and equally fortunate to have the chance to see a portion of the world myself.
Being in a community such as Mombassa as director of DukeEngage indeed provided a unique window through which to consider what we do and why we do it. In Kenya, following time spent in both Kakamega and Mombasa, it is as humbling as it is empowering to visit small grassroots organizations where the efforts of our students make a tangible impact. At EDDO, DukeEngage student Tyler Donahue helped organize an effort to sell mushrooms to local hotels and restaurants so that the organization could have a way of generating its own income. To do so, he had to learn Kenyan sign language. Later, I visited DukeEngager Andrea Alonso at the Kakamega Hospital where she raised funds to build an additional water tank for much needed water. And then there was DukeEngager Caitlin Johnson (pictured above), who implemented a bracelet making project for a community-based HIV/AIDS outreach organization.
My favorite parts of these visits — having also had visits this summer to Guatemala and Spring Creek, North Carolina — is to talk to students who have become “humble experts.” I choose this term carefully. I love when students sit down and, without hubris or great intention, explain to me why eye testing is so important in Guatemala, how best to teach literacy to 6th grade girls in Spring Creek, or why it made a huge difference to orphans in Mombassa to clear the mold off of the walls of the orphanage and paint them sky blue. These students do not see themselves as teachers, but indeed they teach me so much about our place in the world, guiding my understanding in the most gentle and unassuming way. And it is at these moments while I’m listening and learning that I realize why I am educator at heart.
I realize that over the years, while visiting hundreds of students in dozens of sites in the U.S. and abroad. I have spent time with and learned from the widest range of community partners who serve populations that have both assets and deficits. It is sometimes easy to focus on the deficits, as those seem to be more obvious, regrettably obscuring the assets these community organizations have. And it is, in fact, our students—our humble experts—who come to recognize the generosity, the tenacity and the creativity of what are sometimes very under-resourced organizations.
I hope that this is how DukeEngage links to the broader mission of Duke University—to apply knowledge to the service of society, and to continue to create humble experts who share their new grasp of global issues with me, their friends and the broader University community.
I returned a few weeks ago from a trip to Guatemala where my family took part in a house build through the auspices of the organization From Houses to Homes. Through six days of hard physical labor that included mixing concrete, applying mortar, carrying hundreds of cinder blocks and painting, we were able to finish a 13 x 19 cinder block house for a family of 7 with children ranging in ages from 9 months to 12 years old. I also had the opportunity to visit with some of our DukeEngage students partnering with Social Entrepreneurship Corps and spent the day visiting with Cross Cultural Solutions, a U.S.-based organization that provides service opportunities throughout the world. The house build (check out the slide show above) was an extraordinary experience for my family and me. We got to know the family we were building for very well, in large part because my daughter, Leah, speaks such good Spanish and served as a translator for us. They shared with us the little food that they had, their curiosity and good spirit, and the challenges and promises of their lives. Below are reflections I wrote during the course of our service experience:
Now having just completed day three of a six day build, I can say that the physical labor is exhausting and incredibly rewarding. I have new appreciation for the term “back-breaking labor”. I have been shoveling, mixing cement, moving cinder blocks, applying mortar and sweating profusely. The building site is in front of the current house, up a narrow dirt road that is just wide enough to accommodate the pickup truck that picks us up each morning (we enjoy riding in the bed of the truck, which is, for the record, prohibited by DukeEngage) to the town of Santa Catalina. The surroundings are a complex mix of abject poverty and beautiful people and surroundings. Steep hills with coffee and bananas made lush by the frequent rain, framed by mountains partially obscured by clouds, provide a wonderful backdrop for this work. Trash strewn paths led to very small tiendas that vary little – the ubiquitous Coca Cola and a multitude of different forms of chips, or as I came to call them “salt delivery vehicles.”
We have gotten to know the Hernandez family well, and they are lovely. The dad is a carpenter who makes caskets and cutting boards, though he does not have work now. The mom went to school for one day and thus is illiterate, and rarely is seen without her nine-month-old Miguel on her hip. My children have very much enjoyed the Hernandez children, learning Spanish and teaching English, dancing, joking, throwing cement. These children are bright and hungry. They enjoy doing the fist bump with us and singing “The Wheels on the Bus.”
It became clear to us on the first day that this family did not have a lot of food as they watched us eat our ham and cheese sandwiches with hungry stares. They were not eating. We shared parts of our sandwiches with them, and passed around the cookies we had bought in the market in Antigua. My wife asked what they would like from the market, and they gave us a very long list including beans, rice, cornmeal, etc. We arrived the next day with a few things, and they have been eating these ever since. They are now asking for more, with the children wondering if we will bring them bicycles, cameras, etc. When we climbed out of the truck today they immediately asked what did we bring? We brought them a soccer ball, and coloring books and markers that we brought from Durham.
Needless to say, my family has been discussing what the right thing is to do here? I fear that we have now established a relationship with this family where we are in the dominant position because we can and have given them material goods. But when is it too much? When do the material goods that we are bringing disrupt their calm lives and fill their homey but rudimentary space with possessions that looks all too familiar to me? When does it become the defining feature of our relationship? When does our giving them material things become taking away their familiar lives? This is a struggle for us, and I can imagine for the Hernandez family as well.
We never solved these issues or others, including how the Hernandez family will be viewed by neighbors who did not have a house built for them.
I know that many of our DukeEngage students struggle with similar challenges. While I do not have the right answers, I do know that we should discuss these, look at the implications of our good intentions and, at the same time, not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
I have had the wonderful opportunity this weekend to spend some time reading the blogs of our DukeEngage students who are in the field. This is always a chance for me to live vicariously through the experiences of our participants. This point in the early summer provides an opportunity to watch students begin to navigate unfamiliar customs, languages, surroundings and cuisine. In fact, this morning I am most struck by the observations so many have made in their blogs about food.
So it got me to wonder, how does food relate to the kind of civic engagement we want our students to have? When I describe the nature of our programs to friends and colleagues, I always use the word “immersive” to describe our program design. By immersive, we want our students to be deeply exposed to the sites, sounds, smells and tastes of the communities in which they are doing their service. So it is with deep satisfaction and--some hunger--that I note this morning that food plays such an important role in the early weeks of cultural immersion and community relationship-building among DukeEngage students.
As Lindsey in Northern Island writes, “Food is perhaps the most universal way that people express gratitude, love, and a whole plethora of warm fellow-feelings.” Our students in Egypt perhaps provide the most tantalizing description of food. I would love to taste the Koosheri (hearty macaroni, fried onions, rice, lentils, and chick peas), street vendor chicken and fresh juice described by our students in Cairo. Or in Guatemala, the frijoles, tortillas and eggs that are the standard fare for the region, and the relief of finding a Domino’s Pizza for something more familiar. Then there’s Peru and the healing power of tea! Our students in Vietnam have been exposed to wide variety of delicacies, many that I can almost still taste from my time in Ho Chi Minh City , Vietnam many years ago.
I could go on. But check out the blogs for students’ perceptive first-hand accounts of the meaning that food has in the early days of their DukeEngage experience. As for me, I am going to fridge to eat some fresh picked strawberries.
Eric Mlyn, Director
Duke Center for Civic Engagement/DukeEngage