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.
Concerns about student safety at the Muhuru Bay, Kenya DukeEngage site recently led to the suspension of this summer's program there. The 13 students who were scheduled to participate in the program have been offered new service placements with the Foundation for Sustainable Development, also in Kenya.
In anticipation of each program getting underway, DukeEngage staff and affiliated faculty directors conduct ongoing assessments of service sites to ensure operational feasibility and student safety. A recent assessment conducted by Sherryl Broverman, faculty leader of the Muhuru Bay, Kenya program, revealed concerns stemming from threatening actions and statements made by the former building contractor for a school being built at the site. While the program in Muhuru Bay is suspended indefinitely, DukeEngage hopes to return to the site in the summer of 2011 once the problematic issues have been resolved.
Each of the 13 DukeEngage students scheduled to take part in the Muhuru Bay program have been offered alternative placements through a partnership with the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD), an organization with which DukeEngage worked last summer in the Kenyan town of Kakamega. Opportunities exist in a number of areas—from youth and education, microfinance and women’s empowerment to health, human rights, the environment and community development—in Kakamega as well as in the city of Mombasa.