When I look back on my experience at DukeEngage Academy, I imagine myself as a baby bird eagerly guzzling down the masticated and indoctrinated rhetoric of a program desperately trying to disguise voluntourism as a means to “address critical human needs” by “providing meaningful assistance to communities”. Those are the words of the illusion perpetuated on the main page of the DukeEngage website. Meaningful assistance, however, does not happen in eight weeks, though that doesn’t seem to bother DukeEngage.
I know the reactions I will receive when friends and neighbors at home ask me about my summer. “Wow! What a great experience. I’m sure you made such a difference in those children’s lives.”
Look at me! How impressive!
But have I? Am I? Let’s begin with the English camp for kids, aged 5 to 17, that we have been planning and participating in. Sure, the kids are having a great time, and yes, I do believe that the English I have taught them has been a better experience had I not been there. The issue is, the camp is painfully lacking in resources. We struggle to plan activities and brainstorm crafts for each class because we know whatever we propose won’t come to fruition. Construction paper, glue, markers, chalk. These are basic things that an elementary school-aged child should have at a summer camp, and yet they are few and far between here. DukeEngage seems to waste no expense when it comes to providing for the Duke students and their experiences while abroad.
How come there aren’t funds set aside to provide the resources so that these programs can actually run? Why doesn’t DukeEngage continue to donate past each eight-week project to ensure that “meaningful assistance” is achieved? Our cohort was made aware of a small amount of money, roughly $100, set aside for “materials” during the Academy. Since then, we have not seen that allocation in use.
Our second initiative is an SAT camp run through EducationUSA at the United States Embassy. I would like to start by saying that this program has been all but sabotaged due to insufficient collaboration on the part of EducationUSA. This has been by far the most disappointing letdown in my DukeEngage experience and I truly hope that the students of Cape Verde are able to find academic support via other avenues. That aside, regardless of if the SAT camp had gone smoothly, I again see flaws in DukeEngage’s approach to creating environments in which a “student contributes in a meaningful way to an organization”.
There is no meaning in an SAT camp when the students don’t have calculators. There is no longevity in a camp that does not provide hard-copy educational resources beyond a few handouts and practice tests, especially when the site of the camp has spotty Internet connection. As of now we have, at best, two consistent students. I should hope that buying each of them an SAT prep book, which are available for under $30, would not break the bank. If we are feeling particularly generous, perhaps even paying for the $47.50 SAT fee itself. You know, facilitating the actualization of the entire purpose of the camp. But these are crazy thoughts.
Financial support is critical to meeting the goals of this program. Recalling the $100 set aside for materials, it’s clear that such support is absent. My flights here, from Chicago O’Hare, probably totaled to around $1,000. My best guess at the budget for our accommodations is just short of $10,000. I am grateful to be living in a place where I am safe and comfortable, but I am uncomfortable at the thought that so many resources have been poured into my experience, the Duke experience, while the explicit aims of this project and Duke Engage as a whole have taken a financial backseat. $100 for materials is laughable compared to the expense of our cohort merely being here.
Our community partners are expected to train us, be patient with our limited language abilities, and provide the best, safest, and most fulfilling experience for us as Duke students. They are not paid for their time. As we fumble around through cultural barriers, doing our best, they receive no compensation for dealing with our inabilities. The belief that Duke students are immediately utilizable resources for the bare reason that we are Duke students is flawed. When I stand in front of a classroom full of children and struggle to find any words because I simply do not know them, I am a liability.
If I look back on this experience and appreciate it for what was given to me, I really have no complaints. I am in a beautiful country with wonderful people, learning a fascinating language and enjoying a break from the pressures of college. But, I cannot help but reflect on what I came here to do. I came here to provide “meaningful assistance” and “address critical human needs”. In all honesty, I have not done that, and neither has anyone in my cohort.
This doesn’t feel right. Do better, DukeEngage.