Skip to main content

I bike through the verdant jungle, my tires humming as they brush against moist soil. Howler monkeys call in the canopy and water splashes as caiman swim in the nearby pond. The breeze, a refreshing respite from the humidity, carries the scents of blooming orchids and tropical foliage.

This might sound like a scene from a movie, but this is what going to work every day was like for me this past summer. 

A caiman (a small alligator-like reptile) peeks out of a pond, its reflection is captured on the surface of the water.
The pond next to the Universidad Earth animal farm teems with caiman, small, alligator-like reptiles. Photo by Dhruv Rungta.

I was one of six students in the DukeEngage Costa Rica program. DukeEngage is a fully funded program where students spend eight weeks during the summer working with a community to address big issues. The program in Costa Rica focused on Agriculture and Sustainable Development, and our community partner was Universidad Earth

A private, non-profit university, Universidad Earth brings in high-potential students from farming communities across the world and teaches them how to grow crops sustainably in a four-year degree program in Agricultural Sciences. Among its other operations are coffee, cocoa, and banana plantations; an agricultural research wing; and an animal production farm. The university lies in a tropical rainforest and is designed to operate in ecological harmony with its surroundings.

The work I did with Universidad Earth during DukeEngage was unlike anything I had done before. It offered a unique glimpse into real-world, community-based work. Unlike the structured assignments of classes or the defined daily objectives of internships, our community partner presented us with a broader, more open-ended challenge: how could we make Universidad Earth more sustainable and efficient? 

A photo of herding cattle taken from horseback.
Dhruv Rungta takes a photo from horseback while helping to herd cattle. The students integrated themselves into the farm’s daily operations in order to gain insight into its challenges.

My partner Anjali Kapadia and I decided to focus our efforts on Universidad Earth’s substantial animal farm operation, which includes dairy cows, beef cattle, hens, goats, horses, and more. With the guidance and permission of the farm leadership, we integrated ourselves into the farm’s operations. We learned how to herd cattle on horseback, how to check if a cow was pregnant, and how to inspect goats for parasites. We spoke to many members of the community, from the agricultural workers to the students to almost every faculty member involved with the farm. What was working, we asked, and what wasn’t? Did they have any ideas for how the operation could be more efficient or sustainable?

Around week three, we started compiling lists of challenges, and we created a system to assess which problems we could realistically tackle. Some tasks were easy to deprioritize, such as the need for better waste filtration systems; we didn’t have the necessary environmental engineering background to deal with this. Other projects were eliminated because of their high cost. 

Others required more difficult decisions. One of the biggest challenges I faced during my time in DukeEngage was figuring out how to balance my ideals and values with the needs of the community that we were there to serve. I love animals and care deeply about animal welfare, and there were several farm operations that didn’t sit right with me. During our training process, Anjali and I had to cut the teeth off of baby pigs without anesthesia. This was standard practice on the farm to prevent the pigs from hurting each other. It was tremendously difficult to do and to watch: the little piglets were crying and screaming in our hands. Other practices, like tail docking and the housing of numerous pigs in small concrete enclosures, struck me as ethically problematic. 

Pigs in an enclosure
Young piglets explore their pen at the Universidad Earth animal farm. Photo by Dhruv Rungta.

Initially, Anjali and I harbored strong hopes of introducing more humane practices at the animal farm. We spent weeks wrestling with this. Gradually, we came to terms with the fact that our personal values weren’t universally applicable. This was our first big lesson: our role was to collaborate with the community, not promote our beliefs. Since the community’s priority was balancing efficiency with the need to produce affordable food, we realized that we needed to align our efforts accordingly, respecting both the community’s needs and the different cultural context. 

Building on this realization, we decided to focus on two problem areas: water waste reduction and dairy methane reduction. 

As we were working on these projects, I learned three more lessons about community engagement that would have been close to impossible to figure out in a classroom setting. 


Community integration is essential to make sure that solutions are effective in the long run.

While working on water waste reduction, we identified significant wastage from leaks, from small pipe holes to faulty connections. Our tests showed a single hose hole could lose up to 300 liters of water per hour! After we realized that simple fixes and repairs could save significant amounts of water, we spent a good amount of time installing o-rings to stop leaks. But we realized after we were gone, naturally, wear and tear would occur and these leaks would reappear. 

To tackle this problem, we worked with a Universidad Earth professor to design a water maintenance lab that he would run with his students once a month. We created a map of all the water sources on the farm, and we created a QR code reporting system where students would go to each of these spots to ensure that there were no passive water leaks.

The professor was excited because he could use this to teach students about water wastage, and we were excited because this ensured that our simple solutions would last a long time. Also, by adding this to the class curriculum, students could implement similar sustainability and cost-cutting solutions on their farms back home. 

If we didn’t collaborate with the community and create a shared long-term plan, this solution wouldn’t have had much longevity. 

Any potential solution has to be adapted to a local context.

Two students collect cow dung, one scoops using a shovel and the other holds open a plastic bag.
Working with Allison Damaris Sanchez Tejada, a student at Universidad Earth, Dhruv Rungta (left) harvests some fresh cow dung from an enclosure outside the milking parlor. Photo by Anjali Kapadia.

While researching dairy methane production, we learned that simple modifications in cattle diet, like adding seaweed or garlic, can create significant reductions  – up to 90% in some cases! We contacted over a dozen experts from around the world, conducted interviews, and read countless research papers to learn more. 

Many of the studies were conducted on different breeds of western cows in different climates with different diets. We were surprised to learn that the same diet had huge effects in one climate, but no effect in another. A dietary expert told us that it was critical to test these changes on a small local population to ensure that our recommendations worked and had no adverse effects.

So we worked with a campus scientist to harvest methanogens from local cow dung, and using an artificial rumen we tracked how adding garlic to the cattle’s diet affected methane. Our initial report showed a 40% decline! We also worked with the ranch head to set up a plan for a test where this diet would be given to a small number of cows, studying factors such as milk quality, taste and cow health.

Based on promising initial results, we worked with local experts to create a staggered supplement-based methane reduction plan that could ultimately help Universidad Earth to lower its carbon footprint. 

Be observant and keep asking, is there something else we could be doing to make our community members’ jobs easier? 

Although we were focused on water waste and methane reduction, we made sure not to overlook other emerging needs in the community. For instance, while making empanadas with Patty Perez, a staff member in donor development, I heard that she was planning to conduct student interviews and record them on her phone to show to potential donors. I had done a similar project before, and I had a professional camera with me, so I excitedly offered to make these videos for her. She was so grateful, and even after we left Costa Rica, she sent me a clip of my videos being played for donors. 

A woman takes a selfie including a group of smiling students at a table behind her.
The DukeEngage Costa Rica students visit the home of Universidad Earth staff member Patty Perez (far right) for an empanada-making lesson and a delicious meal. From left to right: Luca Tjossem, Dhruv Rungta, Anjali Kapadia, Samantha George, Lulu Perez, Claire Barry and Malia Dickhens. Photo by Patty Perez.

Even small things, like sitting and talking with a student who wanted advice on applying to programs in the United States, broadened my understanding of community engagement.

Despite only spending eight weeks in Costa Rica, the connections we’d forged during our time there were deep and sincere. During our goodbye party, our little house’s living room was full of friends — students, staff and professors. Patty baked a cake in my favorite flavor as a thank you. We gave our boss hugs, and in the best Spanish I could muster, I said, “Muchisimas gracias por enseñarnos tanto y darme el mejor verano de mi vida.” (“Thank you for teaching us so much and for giving me the best summer of my life.”) In just eight weeks we had made such meaningful relationships; it felt like we were there for much longer than we actually were. In many ways, our little house became a home. 

DukeEngage is truly a program like no other. It isn’t another study abroad or internship. It’s a gateway to forging deep bonds with a diverse community and gaining perspectives unattainable through any other means.