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DukeEngage participants reflect on conversation with Melinda Gates

  • 05.11.13
  • Posted By: Eric Van Danen
    • Gates student bloggers
Pictured: (top row) Saher Valiani, Andrew Rotolo (bottom row) Katie Guidera, Ray Liu 
Twelve DukeEngage participants from years past gathered this morning with Duke alumna Melinda Gates, affording a rare opportunity both to share their unique and personal stories of transformation and to offer their collective thanks to Ms. Gates and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for providing a $15 million endowment for DukeEngage, which was launched by Duke in 2007. 
Four participants have shared immediate reflections on their conversation with Mrs. Gates. (A short biography on each contributor follows at the end of the post.) 
Saher Valiani '13
My introduction to civic engagement through the DukeEngage program in Tucson, Arizona greatly influenced the rest of my undergraduate career and fueled my desire to pursue a future career in public service with a law degree. After so largely shaping my life in a great many ways, the program provided me the awe-inspiring opportunity to meet with Melinda Gates today during her visit to Duke University, where she set aside time to meet with a dozen former DukeEngage participants. During our hour together we discussed Melinda Gates’ own civic engagement endeavors, her motivations for becoming involved in service and her desire to provide the tools for underserved communities to pull themselves up onto an equal playing field. Throughout our meeting, I thought back to my own experiences working with migrants in Tucson in which I grew frustrated that human rights appeared to be allocated contingent upon a person’s birthplace or economic standing, yet encouraged by the program and by this discussion that we students could help grant agency to the issues through the attention we can draw within our unique fields. Our conversation reinforced my initial motivations to continue civic engagement well past college and use the connections and tools I gained from DukeEngage to tackle societal problems at home and abroad.  I truly valued the opportunity to engage in conversation about issues of great global importance with one of the world’s most engaged civic leaders on one of my last days on Duke’s campus, and I am immeasurably grateful for DukeEngage’s existence thanks to the generous donation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 
Andrew Rotolo '14
"Life is a learning journey." These are the words that stay with me after hearing Melinda Gates discuss her path to philanthropy this morning. Like most of the students who were in the room, I have thought about my own path to service in great depth, carefully considering where I can best use what I have been given to serve others. Melinda took great care in each comment she made this morning, and spent much more time actively listening to our stories before sharing her own. I think this reflects well the idea of living out the learning journey. For Melinda Gates this journey has taken her all over the world to observe and act upon instances of people in need from all walks of life. She expressed that two questions — "What if it were me in their place?" and "How can I use my voice?"  — have been strong guides to motivate her to continue, but it is through learning that she has begun to find some answers. Her display of knowledge in several areas, from global health to education policy to economic development, are a testament to where this learning journey can begin to lead you, and certainly where it has led Melinda Gates in some scenarios. The other piece, however, is the intangible knowledge that grows us as people and helps us to see from new perspectives. What has been found with the DukeEngage program is that a humbling experience can have a lifetime effect on the one who takes it in and learns from it. What is encouraging is that the story of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation started in this same manner. This is where change in the world seems to be occurring at its best - when learning is involved.
Katie Guidera '14
Today I had the unique opportunity to share my DukeEngage story and its continued impact on my academic, professional, and personal aspirations with my fellow classmates and Mrs. Melinda Gates. Listening to the stories of some of the most passionate students I have ever met, in addition to those of my long-time role model Mrs. Gates, was truly transformative and inspiring. As a group, we discussed the issues that really hit close to home for me: merging the fields of global health and international development, bridging global experiences with domestic interests, and finding a way to address global diseases in an interdisciplinary way. As a student volunteer, this conversation has reignited the flame that was lit initially during DukeEngage by challenging me to give more thought to the ways in which the interconnected nature of health and social inequality might be addressed. 
As a Global Mental Health major, this conversation has reaffirmed my interest in the highly under-researched and under-addressed area of mental health in developing nations. As the founder of an organization called the Malaria Awareness Program, this conversation has inspired me to further our mission to merge community-driven education with a locally-run social enterprise in rural South Africa. I am excited to continue to reflect on this experience as I finish my studies at Duke and find my way in the professional world. I will be traveling to South Africa next week to continue my work with the Malaria Awareness Program, and I could not be more excited to extend today’s conversation with those whom I meet in the coming weeks in a meaningful way.
Ray Liu '15
What does it mean to really engage? And what is "civic engagement"? Often I encapsulate engagement in my switch from biomedical engineering to political science, or from the science lab to social justice following my DukeEngage experience. But Melinda Gates challenged that notion, and pushed me to rethink what real engagement looks like. As she described her first and subsequent visits to Africa, Melinda Gates asked us to consider the question: "What if it were me?" It was then that all 12 of us DukeEngage participants realized this was the question that connected all of our individual experiences. Though my post-DukeEngage reflection process has been a long one, her question helped me realize that passion and calling arise when you let an experience fully permeate your being. Don't lose the seed that DukeEngage has embedded in you, she said. Some of you will end up in the Peace Corps and others will end up on Wall Street in the next couple of years. You may not act upon what you learned immediately, but come back to it when you're ready. Throughout our hour of conversation, Melinda Gates also reiterated the notion that in order to create a more horizontal playing field and bring the world together, we must bring different fields together. Mrs. Gates really embodied this interdisciplinary spirit, connecting her expertise in global health and philanthropy with deep knowledge beyond those fields, and demonstrating the great potential we have to change our world when disciplinary walls are dissolved. Until now I've envisioned my pre-DukeEngage and post-DukeEngage lives as separate entities, but meeting Melinda Gates helped me realize that passions are not uni-disciplinary and that nothing is truly mutually exclusive. I can wield my math and science skills, combine them with my knowledge of culture and politics, and even team with movers and shakers in other places as a force for good. I'm not sure what this means for my future experiences and endeavors, but I know this much: the transformative experience that DukeEngage provides carries real breadth and depth, its impacts both quantitative and qualitative. The program has sent 2,400 students to the corners of the earth in 75 countries to date, but as Albert Einstein put it, "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted." Hopefully soon, we'll have both the stories and the numbers to know that our world is moving in a better direction.
Saher Valiani is a graduating senior from Fayetteville, Georgia, majoring in political science and international comparative studies. Her program of study at Duke has been defined largely by her summer experience on United States and Mexico border through the DukeEngage in Tucson, Arizona program in 2011. After learning about border politics and witnessing the normalcy of human rights abuses against immigrants in the United States, she pursued her own independent research on Peruvian immigrants' rights and abuses in Santiago, Chile as part of the Hart Leadership Program at Duke. Her service-learning experiences have influenced Saher to matriculate to the Washington University of St. Louis School of Law after graduation where she plans to study international human rights and public interest law.
Andrew Rotolo spent 10 weeks in Nairobi, Kenya working as an independent project DukeEngage student in collaboration with an organization called First Love Kenya, whose mission is to care for and educate orphaned youth living in the slums around Nairobi. During his time with First Love, Andrew worked out of a school to help run a feeding program, provide first-aid, tutor students, and run school cleanup projects. Once back at Duke, he began studying Swahili and picked up a scholarship the following summer to do an immersive language and culture study program back in Kenya. During the summer of 2013, he will return to Kenya for a third time to work more specifically on microfinance and entrepreneurship opportunities there. He is pursuing an International Comparative Studies major with a certificate in Markets & Management Studies. Following his graduation from Duke in 2014, he will be commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. 
Katie Guidera, a rising senior from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, co-founded the Malaria Awareness Program (MAP), an organization that works in rural South Africa to create pathways of change through malaria education and social enterprise initiatives. Last summer, Katie traveled to HaMakuya where MAP ran a successful pilot program. There, community health workers led interactive education workshops in six villages, attracting over 350 participants. A recent winner of the Resolution Social Venture Fellowship, Katie will return to South Africa this summer to work on expanding MAP's reach to HaMakuya’s remaining eight villages and beyond. MAP also will work with a local sewing cooperative to start a mosquito bed net operation, which will provide a tangible means of malaria prevention. Katie is studying Global Mental Health through Duke's Program II major. In the future, she hopes to work in the public health field.
Ray Liu is a sophomore from San Jose, California, with a love for understanding the world through language and culture and bettering that world through advocacy and politics. He began to consider a political science major after teaching hip-hop and a cappella through his DukeEngage program in Zhuhai, China—an experience that pitted him against his very self but helped him discover his passion: to promote empowerment and reconciliation through education, entrepreneurship, government, and the arts. Ray hopes to pursue business school or graduate studies eventually; but for now, he is excited to teach dance this summer for I.D.E.A.S., an organization based in Beidaihe, China that works towards education reform.


Read all of this summer's student-written blogs. 

    • DukeEngage Cairo