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Featured Independent Projects



In the summer of 2013 I traveled to the Madre de Dios region of Peru to volunteer with the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) at the biological research station Villa Carmen. ACA is dedicated to protect the Amazon by working with the state, local communities, and private land owners to conserve the integrity of the forest and establish the sustainable use of its resources. To mirror these goals, I designed my project to combine my interest in conservation with community engagement and outreach. For the first part of my project I monitored frog populations to determine the prevalence of the cytrid fungus around Villa Carmen. Cytrid fungus has been spread worldwide by human activities and is causing mass extinctions and declines of amphibian populations in all corners of the globe. The second part of my project was to build the connection between the local community and the research station by teaching about conservation at local schools.


As a double major in Environmental Science and Biology, I knew that I wanted to conduct a project focusing on conservation or the environment. I also wanted to conduct my project in Latin America so I could put my years of classroom Spanish to use. When I originally started to think of applying for a DukeEngage independent project I began searching for organizations online, but could not find a partner organization I was very enthusiastic about. I than turned to friends who had experiences in Latin America for ideas. I was eventually directed to ACA and talked with several of the organizers to develop a project idea that could incorporate both conservation and community engagement.


When I first arrived in Peru I traveled to ACA’s high elevation biological station, Wayquecha, with the researcher in charge of the frog monitoring project and five other student volunteers from different universities who would also be working on the project. I spent nearly a week at Wayquecha, located in the Andean cloud forest, learning the history of cytrid fungus and the basics of amphibian monitoring techniques. From there I headed down to Villa Carmen, in the picturesque low-elevation Amazon Rainforest with one other volunteer. I was extremely impressed with how well the station was maintained, looking more like a tropical paradise than the rugged image of a biological station I had pictured in my mind. We began working on the frog monitoring project immediately, conducting four hour searches every night in the forest to collect amphibians. Every morning we would identify, measure, and test each frog and salamander caught the night before for cytrid fungus. This part of the project went smoothly, with a total of 313 amphibians caught over the summer, and an average of six night searches a week. However, when I first arrived at Villa Carmen, I realized that the station and the local town had very little interaction. I learned that most research stations worldwide are located in remote areas near small rural communities, and the two tend to remain isolated from each other. At this point I wanted to shift the goals of my project, and instead of attempting to go to multiple schools and teach several classes about biology and conservation, to focus on building the relationship between ACA and the local school from the ground up. I worked with several other ACA volunteers to achieve this goal, and by the end of the summer I had given several presentations to elementary through high school children about conservation.


Despite my initial impression of Villa Carmen, adapting to life in a remote biological station required a learning curve that essentially took my entire time there. Spending nearly ten weeks in rural Peru was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I have ever had. Personally, I had to learn how to live without all of the comforts and technologies of home. Limited communication and even intermittent electricity required that I adapt to a completely new style of life. Academically and intellectually, I learned skills that I will be able to take with me into future research situations. More importantly, I adjusted my ideas of what I want to pursue in my further education and as a career. While living in the jungle for months on end had always been one of my life goals, I now realize that my future pursuits of conservation and community outreach will not be based in a remote field location. Still, my summer experience with DukeEngage is something I would never want to change.


My advice to anyone applying for an independent DukeEngage project is to design a project that you are truly passionate about. The DukeEngage experience, especially on independent projects where you do not have the direct support of other students or professors, is largely crafted by your everyday outlook on life. If you are excited about your project and genuinely interested in what you are doing, you will be able to overcome the inevitable hiccups that occur on any DukeEngage project while maintaining a positive attitude. Working closely with the DukeEngage staff and a project mentor at Duke, you can create an independent project that will provide an unforgettable experience while delivering measurable benefits to a community in need.


Ethan Baruch, class of 2015, is double majoring in Environmental Science and Biology. He plans on attending graduate school to study ecology. 
The Amazon Conservation Association is dedicated to protecting the biological diversity of the Amazon by working with the state, local communities, and private land owners to conserve the integrity of the forest and establish the sustainable use of its resources.

In the summer of 2011 I participated in a DukeEngage Independent Project with the Range of Motion Project (ROMP) in Quito, Ecuador. ROMP aims to serve those who lack access to the artificial limbs and orthotic bracing they require. Because manual labor occupies such a significant portion of Ecuador’s job market, the loss of a limb can often lead an individual to lose his job and his family’s income. By working to help these individuals regain their independence and return to normalcy following amputation, ROMP performs a vital role in traditionally underserved communities. After completing a high school internship in a prosthetics clinic, I wanted to get hands-on experience in the field and the project offered me an opportunity to do just that.


I chose to work with ROMP due in part to their dedication to building a sustainable presence for their patients. By training local professionals, clinics develop a self-sustaining staff of experienced prosthetic and orthotic practitioners, avoiding a reliance on outside volunteer efforts. ROMP’s clinic in Quito, staffed by only 2 or 3 individuals, granted me the opportunity to work closely with experts in the field.


We worked with amputees from all walks of life who were highly motivated to regain their independence. An average day at the clinic included initial assessments for devices, casting patients, modifying molds, pulling plastic, finishing devices, and delivering them to patients. I was thrilled that I was busy each and every day in Quito. While each day brought new challenges, it was by far some of the most rewarding and instructive work I have ever undertaken.


Some of the most pressing challenges the clinic faces are restrictions on available resources. Prosthetic components are not readily available in Quito, and as such donated components are continually sought after. New components are costly for a nonprofit organization to provide to patients, especially when design adaptations are necessary to accommodate the rough terrain in Ecuador, which often decreases the life of devices. We would frequently make modifications to fit the individual needs of our patients, determined by profession or by lifestyle. For example, we created a specific hand attachment with which one patient could use a joystick to operate the agricultural machinery he worked with.


If you are not accustomed to seeing patients with amputations, the sight can often be shocking and saddening. One of the most crucial rewards of my work was a pragmatic perspective: understanding the patients I was working with and determining their needs was more important than fixating on my feelings of sadness I had for them. Learning to look past a person’s disability and focusing on how to solve problems with a patient connects the patient and practitioner in a way that builds mutual respect. I felt more empowered to enact change when I learned to treat my patients as people and not mull over their disabilities.


Success at the clinic meant paying attention every moment of the day and gaining both the confidence and the training to work on my own. By the end of my summer in Quito, I could manufacture both prostheses and orthoses from start to finish. I was proud that my work was helping others to regain function and independence. My DukeEngage project has been one of the best experiences of my life and has inspired me to pursue a career in prosthetics and orthotics. It is my sincere hope that Duke students will continue to forge new opportunities through independent projects and through them, discover the passions which will sustain and enrich their lives.


Nina Bondre graduated in 2013 with a B.S. in Neuroscience and a minor in English. She continues to keep in touch with ROMP and plans to establish her own clinic abroad in the future. Nina began a Masters in Prosthetics and Orthotics at Northwestern University in the summer of 2013.


The Mission of ROMP is to provide prosthetic limbs and orthotic braces to those who cannot afford or do not have access to these services, empowering them to actively contribute to their families and communities.


In 2013, ROMP again hosted a DukeEngage independent participant.

In the summer of 2012, I participated in a DukeEngage Independent Project with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Kosovo. For a span of ten weeks, I held a position as an associate intern within the Research and Policy Division, working alongside project managers on the UNDP’s leading publications, such as the Human Development Report and the Public Pulse Report. Heading back to Kosovo for the second time since I left during the Crisis of 1999, I remember feeling both anxious and excited to return to both my country and my culture: while I looked forward to potentially contributing to Kosovo’s progress and analyzing its challenges, I was worried that in the many years that I’ve been gone, I would come to not recognize where I had grown up and spent my childhood – that Kosovo would feel as foreign to me as any other country on the list of countries in which DukeEngage had programs. While the project required a great deal from me in re-acclimating to my culture and assuming responsibilities outside of my skillset at times, my ten weeks in Kosovo were a great experience that allowed me to broaden my capabilities and contribute in a way to which I otherwise would not have been able.


My project was a fortunate accident in many respects. At the start of the fall semester, I was to participate in the Franklin Center for Humanities BorderWork(s) project and research the refugee crisis resulting from the drought in the Horn of Africa. Though my studies had inhibited me from participating in the research, I was able to meet my future faculty mentor, Professor Claudia Koonz, who encouraged me to continue my interest in migration and displacement. While I knew that I would not have much time to work on the project during the year, I looked into opportunities for the summer to utilize what I’d learned in my classes in a constructive and helpful manner. And while I had aspirations to fly to places that I had never seen or known before, to engage with cultures that I would be completely unfamiliar with, I realized that my desire for new experiences would compete with my desire to help, and that I would ultimately be able to help more effectively by engaging with a culture where my toes were already in the water, rather than diving right into the deep end. I applied to a range of internships around the New York area, and on a whim, to the UNDP office after having stumbled across its publications. A week later, I received a response from the Kosovo office, asking me to be part of a project on migration and its consequences.


I couldn’t have asked for a better fit: the opportunity to work with an international organization within a culture that I grew up in to research migration was nothing less than ideal. But I had been to Kosovo only once before since I had fled as a refugee, and even then, with my family and for a few weeks. I always intended to return again, but this – this was completely unexpected. Moreover, in the twelve years that I had left, I had lost contact with much of my extended family and my fluency in Albanian, having only been through one year of primary school in Kosovo. I knew that this experience would prove to be a challenge that would require me to accept that I would stumble, maybe fall, as I readjust. But Kosovo was still dear to my heart, and I knew that an opportunity to grow in this manner would not come again – holding my breath, I went off to work at UNDP Kosovo.


I had come into the office primarily to work on the Human Development Report for 2013. As the 2012 report was launched a few months prior to my internship, however, I arrived at the initial concept stage where my role was, for the most part, undefined. But it almost seemed natural for me to have been selected for the project focused on the potential of migrants who had left Kosovo: attention within Kosovan institutions had been focusing upon the diaspora and their vast power of remittances, yet my supervisor, Denis Nushi, thought incorrectly so. The key priority for most institutions within Kosovo had been maximizing investments via remittances, which are nearly triple the level of the official development assistance Kosovo receives every year.  However, there is a fundamental problem with this: overemphasis on the financial capital of the diaspora disregards the human capital that they have attained while abroad. With scarce investment and poor relations with its citizens abroad, Kosovo needs to change the question of “How do we make our diaspora work for us?” to “How do we sustainably allow Kosovo to work for our diaspora?” It was a capability-centered approach, one that I learned from a class that I took when I participated in the Duke in Geneva summer program the year prior.


Thus, while I was working at the UNDP editing and commenting on draft publications, gathering macroeconomic indicators for the Public Pulse, editing the main website, and writing chapters for some publications, I devoted the majority of my time to research and analysis on brain circulation and mobility. I read publications, selected the main focus points, and summarized them in order to maintain condensed desktop literature on the phenomenon. I participated in focus groups on the question of diaspora inclusion, went to meetings with numerous government officials and other organizations to hear their viewpoint, and revised and maintained the outline of the report we had established. As I continued to substantiate the outline, I came to understand that what I was doing was not trivial; a well-structured policy, to be read by a community of policy-makers on these matters, would help shape Kosovo to not only adjust to today’s changing labour force and dynamics of development, but help adapt to the future global mobile labour force. If Kosovo is to compete in the modern fight for human capital in the world, then it will need to change itself and how it looks forward. I was excited to take part in such a critical project, and glad that I had the opportunity to engage, rather ironically, as a member of the diaspora myself, willing to contribute the skills he had learned abroad to Kosovo’s development.


What is easy to gloss over when recounting my experience, however, is how easily my experience could have been a rote and forgettable one – how if I didn’t put in enough initiative to contribute I would have been left to clerk duties, and if I didn’t allow myself to be open to making mistakes readjusting to my culture, I would have felt just as isolated when I left as when I got there. And while I was tapped to work on the diaspora project in the beginning, I had to actively work to make sure that I was not being loaded with enough side-projects that would prevent me from focusing on my main task. To aspiring DukeEngage individual participants, narratives like this one help to understand how some projects can go right, and when they go right, they feel great – that you should take the leap and go outside the lines to do what you want, and that you don’t need to travel to unknown lands and cultures to help. But that is also only the start: the crux of any project is maintaining its goals and aims, and when those have to shift, to make sure that they shift along with your goals as well. An individual project is a difficult task, one that involves effort and motivation from the planning process to the conclusion, but nevertheless, it is an experience that allows you first-hand to attempt to realize your ambitions into fruition. And while I cannot promise you that everything will go smoothly should you take the independent path, I only hope that you’ll think it worth it.


Leke Badivuku is a Junior dual-majoring in Economics and Philosophy, with a planned certificate in the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE) Program.


The United Nations Development Programme in Kosovo works to eradicate poverty in the context of sustainable development, including the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals, and promotion of United Nations fundamental principles. The core dimension in their approach is investing in human development, wealth creation (with emphasis on issues such as entrepreneurship, job creation), institutional reform, and capacity development.

As a rising sophomore during the summer of 2013, I participated in the DukeEngage Independent Projects program by working with the North Carolina Indian Economic Development Initiative (NCIEDI). The Initiative is a non-profit organization based in Raleigh, North Carolina whose mission is to promote economic development in Native American communities across the state.


As a member of a North Carolina Indian tribe, I have seen first-hand how many Native communities in our state suffer from tough economic conditions. I viewed working with NCIEDI as a great way to help create real economic growth for these tribes and give back to the community of my family’s origins. In the end, my personal connection to NCIEDI’s mission made my DukeEngage experience even more rewarding.


After spending the spring semester planning my DukeEngage project, I spent about nine weeks working with NCIEDI in our state’s capital. During my time at the organization, I primarily provided technological support to the organization. I designed and wrote a new monthly newsletter about Native American business in North Carolina, NCIEDI’s monthly activities, and Indian culture. I was able to design an easy-to-use template for the newsletter that would allow the organization to quickly make new newsletters even after I left. In addition, I also updated the organization’s website and assisted the organization more generally on an as-needed basis. One interesting project was spending a few days helping NCIEDI campaign to bring internet infrastructure to the Waccamaw Siouan tribe in rural Columbus county.


The best part of my DukeEngage experience, however, came after my project was over. As a result of the strong connections I made within NCIEDI during the summer, I have been able to maintain a relationship with the organization. Until earlier this year, I continued to help write NCIEDI’s monthly business newsletter. In addition, as the president of the Native American Student Alliance (NASA) at Duke, I have helped build a partnership between NCIEDI and our campus organization. During Native American Heritage Month, the Initiative’s CEO, Tony Hayes, even came to speak with Duke students about the economic issues that many Native communities face. This event was featured in the Duke Chronicle the following day. The most rewarding part of my relationship with NCIEDI was being invited to speak at the organization’s business leadership symposium. I had the opportunity to give a speech to Native American leaders from across the state about my time as president of NASA. For me, DukeEnage was not just an incredible summer experience, but also the beginning of a valuable relationship.


As advice for future DukeEngage applicants, I would strongly recommend developing a project that aligns with your personal interests. My connection to the community I served and genuine interest in NCIEDI’s mission made my project more rewarding and enjoyable and created an ongoing experience.


Ryan Chavis is pursuing an Economics Major with a concentration in Finance. 

North Carolina Indian Economic Development Initiative (NCIEDI)’s mission is to advocate and facilitate economic development in North Carolina’s American Indian communities by promoting business expansion, opportunities and partnerships.

If you are currently on the fence about doing an independent project, I am strongly urging you to jump off the fence and just do it. Designing my own DukeEngage independent project was one of the best decisions I made at Duke. It gave me a lot of ownership over the type of work I would be involved with in the summer, and I learned so much about myself in the process. Unlike many of my fellow independent project peers, I worked domestically in San Francisco. I wanted to be involved with an organization addressing maternal and infant health in the developing world. Initially, I had envisioned myself to be living in an exotic, rural village in Tibet, traveling on horses, and conducting challenging work in the field. After taking into account some challenges and my partner organization’s requests, I ended up living in a Victorian house on the edge of the Golden Gate Park and taking hybrid buses to the headquarters of my community partner. Well, I have absolutely no regrets.


Creating my own independent project was the most humbling process of my DukeEngage experience. There were times when I was so disheartened by the lack of feedback from potential community partners that I almost gave up. My DukeEngage advisor kept me going. I remembered vividly going to her office one day on the verge of forgoing my independent project application because no organizations had responded to my emails of intent. Eventually, One Heart World-Wide (OHW) contacted me and agreed to get me onboard. The agony of waiting and persevering made room for character development, and the joys of celebration after the wait made it all worth it.


My 10-week DukeEngage experience in San Francisco with One Heart World-Wide (OHW), a nonprofit organization aimed to improve pre- and postnatal care for women and infants in rural areas, transformed every aspect of my life. I was given the privilege to work with a group of dedicated and persistent people who are fighting for women and children’s access to medical care and resources. OHW’s founder, Arlene Samen, never stopped demonstrating selfless love and compassion to people in dire situations—women living in the Dolpa and Baglung districts of Nepal or the Tarahumara people suffering from a severe drought in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. I also experienced the hard work that was put into the implementation of OHW’s signature program, the Network of Safety, in target communities. The program yielded promising and sustainable results, and all of the successes came from the countless hours of understanding the cultural values and customs and building trusting relationships with the people.


Two and a half months was undoubtedly a brief period to fully grasp the complicated field of Global Health. Nevertheless, my experience developed many important professional skills, especially in writing, time-management, organization, and communication. On the first day at OWH, I had absolutely no confidence and assurance in my capabilities. I was fearful of failures, of not reaching the organization’s expectations, of being a disappointment. The training I received at OHW challenged me to be efficient, creative, and resourceful. Their encouragement and support motivated me to take on even more ambitious tasks.


What I achieved during my DukeEngage project turned out to be more than what I had ever imagined. I contributed to the organization in ways that I found fulfilling. I took part in the lengthy process of researching and applying for grants; organized numerous documents, deposit slips and bank statements; wrote letters of inquiry, project proposals and reports; and collaborated with my program coordinator on an article submission for the Huffington Post. Furthermore, I made lasting relationships with my community partner. Getting to know an organization is one thing. Taking ownership of its mission is another. I felt arduously for the mission that One Heart World-Wide has for every woman and child. I have come to realize the necessity and value of understanding a population and its mores prior to the provision of medical support. Because of this experience, I will be pursuing a higher education in Public Health after graduation. It excites me to see the impact and improvements OHW has made in its target areas, and I am privileged to be part of its legacy.


It was definitely heart-wrenching to accept the fact that my DukeEngage independent project, which was the primary reason why I applied to Duke University four years ago, came to an end. Everything about it—the initial search for a community partner, the design of my project, the wait before hearing back from my community partner, the first few weeks of understanding One Heart World-Wide, and the last few weeks of bidding farewells—taught me how to become a better global citizen, to be more aware of current events, and to take ownership of others’ well-being. DukeEngage transformed my purpose in life. While completing an assignment for OHW, I came across a quote that adequately summarized my San Francisco DukeEngage in its entirety: “Life is not about seeing what you want and how to get it. It is about seeing what you have and how to give it.” – Frank Baxter.  I hope your independent project will bring you a similar transformation as it has to me.
Jeanette Cheng is a Trinity Senior majoring in Biology. She conducted her independent project in California during the summer following her Junior year.


One Heart World-Wide works to decrease maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity in remote rural areas.

In 2010 I went to Oahu, Hawaii for my DukeEngage Independent Project.  Working with my community partner, United Self-Help, I wanted to establish an outreach program for the teenage population.  United Self-Help is a non-profit organization that aims to help mental health consumers help themselves.  Working with them was an honor and an incredible learning experience.  During my time there my eyes were opened to the world of abject poverty, mental health issues, and economic problems facing Hawaiians.


I chose to volunteer in the mental health field because I majored in psychology and was very interested in burdens that mental health consumers bear and the resources available to help them.  I also love working with youth and really feel that giving back through non-profits and volunteering is one of the most important things you can do for a community.


While I was hoping to create an outreach program for youth, I faced many obstacles right off the bat. I think I went into the experience with a naïve view of what I could accomplish in respect to the development of a brand new branch of United Self-Help.  My main hurdle was time. Not only did I have two shorts months to work, but also in the non-profit sector everything takes longer and there are hundreds of hoops to jump through in order to secure the funds needed to carry out your ideas.  When I first arrived I was able to work on and submit a grant for a teenage outreach program, but then the waiting game set in.  I didn’t realize what a long process it would be.  Something that’s really important when creating an independent project proposal is to be EXTREMELY flexible and not to get deterred or disillusioned if your project throws you a few curveballs.  I ended up facilitating support groups, setting up brand new educational classes for consumers, becoming a certified peer specialist, and traveling around the island with the director of United Self-Help promoting their services and raising awareness in high schools.


One of the things I’m most proud of is the sustainability of the new classes and support groups we set up.  United Self-Help planned to continue all of them long after my two months were up.  Sustainability is another important aspect to consider when creating an independent project.  I also recommend really getting to know the people you will be working with.  I still keep in touch with my community partner and recently found out that they are actually planning on expanding their services further, onto the Big Island. How exciting!


My Independent Project experience was priceless and I will always be grateful for the opportunity DukeEngage gave me.  I went in with high hopes of helping a community in need and walked away feeling like they gave me more than I ever could give them.  The mental health consumers I met inspired me deeply and I hope to continue to work with them in the future.


Ally Crooks graduated in 2012 with a B.S. in Psychology and a minor in Religion. She continues to keep in touch with the founder of United Self-Help and hopes to revisit the non-profit in Hawaii to volunteer again in the future. Ally will be attending optometry school starting in the fall of 2013. 


United Self-Help is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote mental health through education and mutual support. 

Kids ask the most interesting questions. As they grow older, their endearing questions get buried under complex formulas and textbook definitions and apathy sets in. During our immersive summer of service, we asked the interesting question ‘how does one make science exciting?’ and we sought an answer to that question by venturing outside the classroom. In the process, our students taught us that it’s important to never lose your child-like curiosity and to ask questions until you find answers.


The significance of science and technology in today’s world is indisputable. Thus, education systems around the world must gear themselves to impart a sound science education to students of all socioeconomic levels. Unfortunately, schools in India often lack the resources to make science exciting and accessible, a problem that is especially pronounced in the underfunded schools dotting slums. Unintentionally, these underfunded schools often relay the message that high-tech laboratories and expensive gadgets—rather than simply innate curiosity—are required to excel at science. This characterization of science as a subject of the “elite” drives away young minds before they can taste its richness. The purpose of our independent DukeEngage project was to mobilize science into the crevices of Mumbai by emphasizing that science is all around us and, therefore, completely accessible.


When we first landed in Mumbai, all we had in mind was a proposal for the school principals and a preliminary meeting with the executive team of our NGO lined up. We were ambitious but unsure of what to expect. Excited but nervous. Ready to work but a little homesick. We had no idea what would unfold over the next two months. Thankfully, Baishakhi Taylor, our faculty mentor, visited us from Calcutta (where she leads a DukeEngage group program) during our first weekend in India. For more than six months before landing, Baishakhi and we had dissected India’s social and economic spheres over interesting conversations, kept up with Indian pop culture, and laid out the logistics of our trip. Seeing her in our flat in India, though, is what made everything seem so real.


The reality really sunk in when we made our first trip to an underprivileged school in Gandhi Nagar. That was the first time we had ever been in a slum. We’d seen poverty before in Slumdog Millionaire or briefly while driving through Mumbai. It had never been so obvious. The students in the school were awe-inspiring. Their level of dedication to their studies despite the cramped space, limited resources, and family problems was unparalleled. Their attentiveness even surpassed that of their peers in more affluent schools in suburban Mumbai.


Over the course of our eight weeks in Thane, we traveled to schools and pitched our idea to the principals and trustees of several local municipal schools. Although our PowerPoint slides were in English, we strove to give our presentation strictly in Marathi—which was much easier said than done. When we weren’t traveling to schools to give presentations, we were practicing experiments at home, designing the curriculum, and preparing volunteer training modules. Since all the members of our NGO work full-time, our main goal was to lay the foundation for this project and get it up and running before we left. Ultimately, we were successful and were able to begin teaching at two different schools during our last of couple weeks. Undoubtedly, some of our most memorable moments in India were towards the end of our trip: the sessions in which we were doing experiments with the kids. We eagerly look forward to the day that we can go back to work with these bright, young minds again.


The blatant truth is that there are numerous kids in Thane, India who go to school every day and slowly lose interest in exciting subjects such as science because it seems abstruse when taught in the rote-memorization model of India’s school system. Is that the students’ reward for going to school every morning despite their hardships at home? Is that what they deserve after witnessing poverty and alcoholism from such a young age and still doing their best to stay focused? We think not. They do, however, deserve the chance to experience the power of knowledge. A platform to showcase their limitless potential. The privilege to live a life they build for themselves. As teachers and members of society, it is our moral obligation to counter this failure of imagination—that there exists a life without hardships.


Our DukeEngage summer was the best summer we have ever had and we can’t articulate in words how transformative this experience has been in terms of personal growth and helping us realize how much we love teaching.


Prachiti and Pranali Dalvi are twin sisters both majoring in Biology. They have maintained close ties with their NGO and continue to work with it to expand and develop the program’s curriculum. In 2013, they presented their project at the  Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU), eventually making it to the Elite Eight in President Clinton’s CGIU Commitments Bracket Challenge. They were additionally awarded Resolution Fellowships through the Social Venture Challenge for their social entrepreneurship efforts. Prachiti and Pranali will be teaching the “Beyond DukeEngage” house course at Duke in  Fall 2013.


Udaan Welfare Foundation was founded in 2008 and works in the areas of Health, Education and Environment through its projects involving children, women and senior citizens in Thane and Mumbai.

I had a phenomenal experience working and living with Mama na Dada, a grassroots NGO in rural Kenya, during the summer of 2011. My project consisted of field research on childhood malnutrition and cognitive development, gathering information about child-birth practices in Kunya village, serving the children in the Circle of Hope Daycare, facilitating engaging discussions with the secondary school students in the Youth Mentors Club, and providing an extra set of hands at the understaffed health clinic.


My interest in global health led to me apply to a Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) fieldwork program in the Fall of 2010 and I spent the spring semester planning and designing a project with my team members, Ben Hoover and Ashwin Agarwal. DGHI has a partnership with Mama na Dada and I was able to communicate with the founders of the NGO to learn more about their needs and interests while designing the DukeEngage project. Our ultimate goal was to assist the NGO in learning more about important issues in the village. Thus, quantifying childhood malnutrition was very fitting because of the tremendous challenge it poses to the future health of young children. Mama na Dada was interested in evaluating whether providing lunch to 40 orphaned children in the Daycare daily after school had an impact on improving their overall nutrition.


By being immersed in a community whose practices, beliefs, and ways of life were foreign to me, I learned more than I could have ever imagined. It is one thing to sit in a classroom at Duke and talk about global health challenges after having read about them in a textbook. But, it is something entirely different to experience them yourself. There is nothing quite like serving a community while living alongside those whom you are working for. This experience really increased my understanding of the global community that we are each a part of and I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity.


Of course, I did have my fair share of challenges, including dealing with mosquitoes that were insistent on biting my skin, adapting my diet based on the local foods, and learning to communicate non-verbally. I am really passionate about languages and being unable to directly communicate with the villagers was difficult for me. Although I focused on learning common phrases and basic words in Luo, the local language, I had to rely on a translator most of the time. Nevertheless, I became accustomed to communicating non-verbally by using facial expressions and gestures to convey my feelings.


Remaining patient and flexible throughout my stay was also key.  As a motivated Duke student, I am driven to accomplish as much as possible given the circumstances and am used to living a fast-pace life. When living in Kunya village, I was confronted by a much a different environment, one which was slower-paced, easygoing, and variable.  Consequently, I had to modify my behavior and remain open-minded. For example, I remember walking to a distant home in the village to interview a guardian about child-birth practices. Upon arriving to her home, she was nowhere to be found. We asked around and found out that our interviewee had gone to the clinic. Therefore, we had to be content with the situation and try back another time. In the end, our patience paid off as we were able to reach out to everyone we wanted to and that was fulfilling!


Since returning from Kenya, I have continued to explore my interests in global health by taking classes towards the Global Health Certificate, attending engaging lectures on campus, and by helping my peers plan subsequent projects with Mama na Dada through DGHI’s student research training program.


Having an excellent mentor in Dr. Sumi Ariely has been wonderful because she focuses students on how to best prepare for their international experience. You can never be over-prepared! To this end, I recommend students considering a DukeEngage independent project to find a faculty mentor who is really passionate about their specific interests and one who may have experience in the type of work they aim to do because faculty mentors can be extremely valuable. Some other tips include communicating with your community partner as much as possible before traveling so that you can get a better idea of their needs, how you can assist, and what you should be prepared for. Also, connecting with a fellow Duke students who has travelled to your country or a region nearby can lead to fruitful discussions about their experience and what they learned. Projects generally experience changes once students reach their desired location and this is quite normal. Moreover, remembering the purpose of your visit and how you wish to give back to your community will keep you focused and driven to make a difference despite the circumstances that may come your way!


Hussain Lalani is a Neuroscience major with a Global Health Certificate. He is starting medical school in fall 2013 with hopes of continuing community-based work by volunteering in local health clinics for the uninsured and immigrant populations. He plans to get a Masters in Public Health after medical school and make addressing local public health challenges an important part of his future work.  Hussain continues to work with Mana na Dada to further their nutrition work and examine major trends in children’s health. Following his project, Hussain has mentored students that have worked with Mama na Dada in subsequent years, including a group of three students in 2012 and three more in 2013 through DGHI programs.

Mama na Dada is a non-governmental organization formed by and for African women to help girls and women to empower themselves. Their mission is to reduce the vulnerability of the African female child to exploitation and discrimination through education, training and research and to enable them to reach their true potentials.

Collin Leonard (Pratt ‘19) completed his independent project during the summer of 2016 in Quito, Ecuador, working with the Range of Motion Project (ROMP). ROMP is a nonprofit health care organization dedicated to providing prosthetic and orthotic care to underserved individuals and communities. During his two months at ROMP, Leonard worked on two major projects: a bionic hand and a dressing device for patients at clinic.

Leonard first worked on a 3D printed prosthetic hand called the HACKberry, using the design model and license systems made available through the HACKberry Open Source Project. This community-driven, open source policy means that artificial arm users and developers can access all the necessary files and materials to print the bionic hand. A report on the design was sent back to the developers, allowing Leonard to give feedback that will help developers around the world improve the model’s next prototype. In this way, Leonard and his partners at ROMP were able to directly contribute to ongoing global progress in the design and production of bionic and artificial limbs.

Additionally, Leonard was involved in building a dressing device for a bilateral amputee patient at the clinic. Leonard worked on multiple designs for the device, then iteratively built and improved them. He hopes that the low cost of the device will allow a large number of bilateral amputees to gain access to the tools needed to live a more independent life. Throughout his progress on both of these projects, Leonard also worked at a prosthetic clinic three days a week building prosthetics and orthotics in the ROMP workshop.

For this interview with DukeEngage, Leonard discussed the many challenges associated with 3D printing and the ample room for advancement in the field. Despite the frustrations of working with this relatively new technology, Leonard says that the relationships he built with the patients and their families was the most rewarding part of building these devices.

 At Duke, Leonard’s work with the Innovation Co-Lab helped encourage his interest in 3D modeling and design. Leonard’s DukeEngage experience in Ecuador affirmed his desire to work internationally after graduation. After realizing a particular interest in the role that patents and corporations play in the process of innovation, Leonard has positioned his post-graduation graduation goals toward international business and social entrepreneurship. 

 To learn more about the Range of Motion Project, visit our Featured Partners page.

In the summer of 2013, I had the once in the lifetime opportunity to travel to Garut, Indonesia to work on slow loris conservation with the Little Fireface Project (LFP). I first discovered these unique primates a few years ago through a series of viral YouTube videos, but was devastated when I realized how quickly they were disappearing from forests across the world. The slow loris is one of the world’s 25 endangered primates and the only poisonous primate in the world. Their main threat is the illegal wildlife market, since they are so visually endearing as pets that poachers reap them by the thousands and then subject them to cruel conditions. Unfortunately, their loss causes not only an imbalance to the natural forest and jungle ecosystems, but also removes a critical insect and pest consumer from the environment.

I started my independent project with a lot of Internet research and multiple Google and YouTube searches. I found out that the Little Fireface Project had its own YouTube channel and section for volunteers on their website and used these resources to contact director Dr. Anna Nekaris, one of the world’s leading slow loris researchers. After applying through their website and communicating with her through multiple e-mails, I started my application for a DukeEngage independent project. Going through the application process was the one of the most helpful components of my trip, since it forced me to think about all of the logistical details of my project from safety, to transportation and lodging, to being flexible if anything went wrong. I chose Charlie Welch of the Duke Lemur Center to be my mentor, since he had extensive experience with primate conservation as director of Duke SAVA Conservation in Madagascar. He helped me immensely in foreshadowing potential problems of field biology research, communication, and technology.

With my Indonesian language skills, I was able to communicate with locals and youths to communicate the need for environmental conservation. In addition to educational school visits and talks, I collected slow loris observational data for the LFP on these nocturnal primates from 6 PM – midnight, or midnight – 6 AM each night. Originally, I believed my project would be more education and community oriented, however, I shifted my goals in order to fit the needs of the organization. Without extensive field biology research on this relatively unknown animal, there is no clear way to discover how to best help save it from extinction.

As I learned very quickly, searching for these slow lorises was not easy. I had come into working with the Little Fireface Project expecting to do more work related to environmental education, but instead found myself playing a miniature Jane Gooddall observing the primates out in the forest for six hours at a time each night along with others from LFP. Radio collars helped us identify and locate each loris, which was a godsend because they could be quite speedy at nighttime when they weren’t busy foraging for food. You could have your sight set on their eyeshine in the trees one second and the next thing you know, they’ve traveled 20 meters across the forest into the dense thicket of bamboo. Luckily, we also used binoculars and flashlights covered in red film to help identify different aspects of their behavioral ecology, such as posture, substrate type, tree species, height of the animal, proximity to other lorises, etc.

Despite my heavy fieldwork with the lorises, my biggest contribution in the village probably came through during the daytimes filled with opportunities for social and educational outreach. We often had the chance to interact with local children to try and promote the importance of slow loris conservation—how this endangered animal could benefit their families’ crops and serve an important role in the ecosystem. It was always fun for us to visit schools around the village and interact with the schoolchildren, whether it was in Bahasa Indonesia or just waving back with a big smile. Some planned activities included having a slow loris drawing and naming contest with the kids, through which we received some really beautiful and creative entries (suggested names for the new baby loris included Optimus Prime, Bob, and Squirrel). During the week of Slow Loris Pride Days in Cipaganti, we went around the area building slow loris kites and masks with the children and even had a slow loris parade that led to the loris-themed soccer tournament, which was attended by an estimated 3,000 people by the last game. Needless to say, our team really hoped programs like this would better educate this next generation to protect their forests and lorises for years to come.

I learned so much culturally from the local Sundanese people in my village. Their local language is Bahasa Sunda, but most of them know Bahasa Indonesia and a tiny bit of English, so we were usually able to communicate with them on a basic level.  However, teaching myself Bahasa from a book helped immensely and broke the language barrier between me and the locals, to the point where I would frequent peoples’ houses for coffee and meal invitations just to have the opportunity to chat with them. My parents stopped teaching me Indonesian when I was about 6 years old, in fear that it would interfere with my English-based lessons at school. To this day, I wish they hadn’t because picking up another language is so much harder when you are older and have less natural ability to do so!

By being able to communicate with the people around me, I was able to understand the personalities of the local radio trackers I worked with and immerse myself deeper in the Sundanese culture, a culture driven by the belief of hard work and humility, devotion and dedication. They are farmers who labor all day in the gardens just to sell their crops at the market down the mountain for a few cents more, while maintaining the job of supporting their families at home. Trying my best to communicate with the Sundanese people around the field house, even if it was imperfect and scattered with multiple hand motions, was one of the most enriching parts of my DukeEngage experience.

I believe I have grown more as a person through DukeEngage than any other Duke experience I have had. I learned a lot about working with people of other cultures and increased my sensibility of inter-cultural and religious differences, which are things that I will carry with me to all parts of my life. I would recommend any person considering applying for an independent project to pick a cause they are passionate about helping and just run with it. Take time to communicate with your community partner and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions to cover every detail. Don’t be afraid to follow your idea, no matter how small it is—you might just end up with a life-changing experience like my own!

I am unsure if I will continue working with primate biology in the future. It is not only physically demanding, but also emotionally taxing to live abroad, thousands of miles away from family and friends. However, it has given me tremendous insight for my studies in Evolutionary Anthropology back at Duke and has changed the way I can make an impact on my community. After graduation, I plan on attending Physical Therapy school or graduate school for studies in Evolutionary Anthropology. Regardless of my future paths, I know that I will always carry this DukeEngage experience with me int he future and I am warmed by the thought that I have the ability to return to a second home among the villagers of Garut, Indonesia.

Jennifer Margono, class of 2015, is double majoring in Evolutionary Anthropology and Dance, with a minor in Psychology.

The Little Fireface Project, named after the Sudanese word for loris, was started in 1993 and aims to save lorises from extinction through research and education programs.  

While planning for my junior year at Duke, I knew that I wanted an abroad experience. I had heard amazing reviews of the DukeEngage program, but having already discovered my interest in development, I was hoping to have a longer engagement experience than the traditional summer. The DukeEngage staff and my professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy got me excited about the prospect of designing an independent project to work in Chennai – a town in south India – where I could research economic development. I ended up spending five months in Chennai doing an independent community-based research project investigating social mobility in urban slums, working with an organization named Janalakshmi Social Services. Specifically, the mission of the project was to identify those few factors that allow for certain individuals to overcome systemic obstacles to achieve significant intergenerational mobility.


The experience was both rigorous and insightful. On a daily basis, I was asked to question my definition of concepts I had only studied in classrooms and textbooks. What does it mean to be poor? What does it mean to be successful in a developing slum? What is a slum? It was my first fieldwork experience, and my questionnaire and methods changed with every interview. I interviewed primarily women in low-income neighborhoods, where I tried to connect with each personal narrative so that I could glean some meaning behind what it meant to “make it” in a world of few amenities. What forces shaped the list of “haves” and “have-nots”? My research in Chennai continued in a yearlong project culminating in an honors thesis titled “Deconstructing the Cycle: vulnerability and prospects for social mobility in Indian urban slums”, which recently earned highest distinction through the Sanford School of Public Policy.


Throughout the experience I battled with the notion of breaking out of my role of the “other”—or in other words, of crossing the border between aiding and serving. I spoke with numerous women situated in urban slums about their narratives of poverty within the context of a modernizing city of the developing world. I spent hours each day traveling and questioning and translating and recording in an attempt to make sense of a flawed system that fostered the inequality of opportunity generation after generation. There were moments when the stories I heard became my own and burdens cultivated by a lack of resources discussed fell on my own back. Inescapable social hierarchies and abuse became a reality to me; alcoholism and needs unmet became actualized fact. And in these moments, I just absolutely knew I was no longer in my dainty and safe role of an American-bred bystander (an “other”), but in the painfully vulnerable position of a privileged participant in an unfair system.


Duke requires each undergraduate applicant to complete a personal statement that says more about them than one might glean from their resume and scores. My personal statement was a creative piece about all the different symbolic colors and shades of my individuality that I had to offer to the Duke community. My diverse palette makes me an attractive candidate, I claimed, I am a multi-dimensional high school student waiting to be challenged and tried at the collegiate level. However, the more time I spend at Duke and converse with inspiring activists and empowering professors, the more I value, not the rainbow palette, but the clean canvas. A clean canvas allows me to listen, to engage, to become, to transform, and to cross margins within my own consciousness. In India, the few times I was able to clear my canvas, the narrative of the interviewee melded into my own and voilà, a small part of the world/the system/the community became mine. On one particular occasion, a woman who helped clean some apartments in my apartment complex shared her story as an orphaned young girl who was verbally and emotionally abused by the family that hired her as a maid. She then fell in love with the family’s driver who she eventually married. He had lied about his family and property to get her to marry him, and continues to physically and verbally abuse her to date. His family has repeatedly shown disgust for her because she is an orphan. He regularly gets drunk and does not bring his salary home, which forces her to perform daily manual labor throughout the apartment complex to pay for basic necessities and her children’s education. As an even further barrier to happiness, her son has no interest in his mother’s plight and repeatedly argues about continuing his education, which he does not take seriously. Following the interview, I was in tears the rest of the day. It wasn’t that I heard her story, but it was that I had allowed myself, after countless painful narratives, to actually let myself feel her story. That feeling allowed me to practice compassion and appreciate the lack of control that her life had been plagued by. Her circumstances were not a product of her own work and effort, but the situation she was born into. And this led me to reflect upon my own notions of privilege and opportunity—I began a discussion with myself about the duties and obligations attached to privilege and entitlement. I also started researching more about the effect of alcoholism on social mobility, which became a catalyst to my thesis work. Border crossing isn’t linear by any means, but by allowing myself that clear canvas, DukeEngage taught me I could reach a deeper intuitive and creative understanding of the world around me.



Lekha Ragavendran is a Public Policy major and Political Science minor. Following her semester-long DukeEngage experience, she continued exploring the subject of project in Chennai in her honors thesis titled “Deconstructing the Cycle: Vulnerability and Prospects for Social Mobility in Indian Urban Slums”, which earned distinction in the Public Policy department. Following graduation, Lekha will be working in D.C. as a consultant for public sector agencies, and she hope to pursue a career in public service. 

Janalakshmi Social Services  (JSS) is the non-profit branch of Janalakshmi (“People’s Wealth”), an organization that supports the urban underserved population in India. JSS provides services aimed to address the multiple facets of exclusion of the urban poor, including providing small savings, financial literacy and advisory services and activities that promote the development and economic well being. JSS’s endeavor is to constantly understand the world of the urban excluded customer base and look out for opportunities that are central to inclusion.

In 2013, I posted up my work in rural Tanzania for my DukeEngage Independent Project focused on a community-based health education campaign for schistosomiasis (schisto) and worms.


I partnered with three villages outside Shirati, rural areas with no official pharmacies. It is estimated that 60 to about 80% of people use traditional medicine before or instead of western medicine – an aspect that has unfortunately been overlooked in past treatment efforts. In 2012 for example, our community partner, Village Life Outreach Project (VLOP) conducted a treatment campaign and their goals were not met. VLOP’s studies showed that the community was 80-90% infected with schisto and worms, but the doctor’s hands were tied without the community’s informed consent. It is sad; mere misunderstanding on both sides – doctors and locals – kept school-aged kids infected with seriously draining diseases.


Visiting Shirati two years before, I had a good understanding of the community structure in the villages. I hoped community leaders in each of the three villages would partner with me to teach their own communities about the prevention and treatment of schisto and worms. The community was an asset, rather than the manifestation of the health problem. I was there to simply facilitate and support the community leaders in their teachings. I knew too well they would convey information in their communities much better than I ever could.


In planning the project, I collaborated with my mentor, Lysa MacKeen on four foundations: (1) developing an engaging and relatable curriculum for a culturally different community; (2) building accountability among the community leaders; (3) considering team and partner dynamics; and (4) factoring in time to build relationships. My mentor not only worked with me but also with my partner, Amee Tan, who joined the project later on. In this way, it fortunately became our project, rather than my project.


Without much progress, our first two weeks in Shirati passed quickly. We struggled to find transportation to the villages. We did not have a translator. Yet, while it seemed as if we were stuck, we unknowingly set the foundation of our entire project. It was in those first weeks that we built the most important part of our work – relationships; too fluffy? Well, too bad because if it were not for the relationship with our driver, our translator, our project logistics coordinator and other supporters, we might as well have flown back home for the summer.


After a slow two weeks, we finally got to sit down with the community leaders. We were excited and thrilled to finally talk, but then BLAM! They asked us for a step-by-step, detailed curriculum. WHAT?!? We originally thought we were going to make it together! My pen dropped. And my spirits crushed. What a mess I was. But thank you to the man upstairs we somehow found access to a plethora of animations and videos on schisto and worms. With a few days of excessive work, us crazy Duke students managed to shape a curriculum and re-focused our entire project – less emphasis on curriculum development and more on training and teaching. Although it was last second and regardless of the miscommunication, our project worked. While on the ground, we (the leaders, Amee, and myself) taught around 1,000 people in all sorts of environments, from schools and churches to beachfronts and beneath palm trees.

The moment I found confidence in our project was the moment I will always remember. The last day in a village on the beach of Lake Victoria, we met with the community leaders to do our final teaching outreach. Amee and I handed over the materials and without our help, there were people flocking from all corners of the small village to hear the community leaders teach. It was unbelievable – we were no longer needed. It was time for us to fly home.


When VLOP returned to Shirati in October 2013 (after our summer project), they found that the community members taught 5,000 more people. And their treatment campaign reached 1,000 people in comparison to 400 in 2012. Child participation doubled due to increased informed consent of parents, and complaints of side effect reduced by 100%.


Beyond the treatment campaign, because schisto and worms have become the hot topics of the villages, external engagement has increased. London doctors, unassociated to VLOP, are participating; Kroger Pharmacy is donating more medicine; and there are possible plans for disease research in the communities. It is cool to think that the project might have sparked the eventual eradication of schisto and worms in Shirati.


Before DukeEngage, I was pre-med and biology. Now, I am studying international comparative studies, Swahili, and global health. I have dreams of living in East Africa after I graduate concentrating on health and education social entrepreneurship. Yes, I still want to focus on health, but I have also gained a passion for teaching and educational systems because of my experience. I am also working on start-ups, which is something I never saw myself doing and I love it! It is as simple as this: some people return from DukeEngage and say the experience was life changing; others come back and change their life. My advice is to be the latter.


Phil Reinhart successfully applied for RIPP Engage funding for the 2014 summer and returned to Tanzania to continue his work in Shirati, exploring models for building a community resource center.
His project partner, Amee Tan, a rising senior majoring in Romance Studies with a concentration in French & Spanish and a Minor in Global Health, completed her own DukeEngage independent project in Nicaragua in 2014.


Village Life Outreach Project woks to unite communities to promote Life, Health and Education. Most of Village Life’s work focuses on three remote and impoverished villages in the Rorya district of Tanzania.

Our DukeEngage project took place in Lusaka Zambia in the summer of 2012. Through our community partner, Sport In Action, we worked at three different worksites on a variety of assignments, including P.E. and life skills education, HIV education and research, fundraising projects, and coaching soccer and basketball.


We initially decided to do an independent project because it gave us the opportunity to design a project that was perfect for us. We really wanted to work with a youth sports development organization, and we knew that we wanted to work somewhere in Africa.  Many organizations in African countries use sports development as a tool for tackling HIV/AIDS and other important education and health issues, so that region was the best choice for us.  The first step for us was to start looking for organizations by doing online research, which began in September.  We found about 15 organizations, split up the list, and contacted them all.  We were really happy that we started our work early because it gave us plenty of time to deliberate and choose the perfect organization after receiving some responses.  We finally narrowed it down and chose the organization that had given us the most enthusiastic response and seemed well established.


By October we knew that we would be working with Sport In Action, an NGO in Lusaka, Zambia.  We were in constant contact with the programs director, Mwape, and asked him many questions.  He informed us of our housing options and we decided to live in a volunteer house.  He also put us in contact with a former American volunteer which was very helpful.  We continued to do more research on Sport In Action and Zambia so we could learn more about the culture and setting. Knowing that we wanted to perform research as well, we met with someone from the IRB before leaving for Christmas break.  This was important because the IRB process was very long and drawn-out.  When we returned to school in January we submitted our DukeEngage applications and sent our research questionnaire into the IRB.  The IRB approval process ended up taking us until May so it was good that we started early.


Upon first arriving in Lusaka, we were a little overwhelmed.  Mwape had told us that knowing the tribal languages was not crucial, however, it seemed that everyone was speaking them.  English is the national language in Zambia, but most people speak Nyanja or Bemba in Lusaka because it is easier for them.  We did come to realize that we were able to get by fine by just speaking English.  Another first impression was that we were a little confused with our initial work assignment of teaching P.E. classes.  While we were certainly qualified for this, we had other strengths that we wanted to offer.  This is when we started to ask about doing other work, such as our HIV/AIDS classes.  Ultimately, we had to figure out how to adjust our schedule to fit what we wanted while still doing what SIA wanted us to do.  Mwape was very helpful in setting up new placements for us.


Our work did not come without challenges. We definitely had to adjust to some cultural differences.  One of the main difficulties for us was that everyone in Zambia operates on “Zambian time.”  This means that everyone is always late and it doesn’t seem to matter to anyone.  We are so used to being punctual, or even early, that we had a hard time grasping this.  Some days, peer leaders we worked with would show up a half hour into the 45-minute class we were supposed to teach.  On another occasion when we were coaching a girls’ soccer team, the team and the head coach didn’t arrive until two and a half hours after the scheduled start time.  We found that we just had to accept these differences, but when we worked on our own we were able to do things punctually.  There were also a few issues with communication among the younger SIA volunteers, and there were days when we were not informed of schedule changes.  We quickly became extremely proactive in contacting the volunteers and the school to double check on just about everything.


Professionally, the project was a great introduction to sports development, a new and quickly growing form of youth and international development. We were able to experiment with coaching, teaching, conducting research, and more administrative tasks like preparing fundraising projects or offering skill-building workshops for our community partner. Exposure to so many different types of work made it easier to identify the kinds of career paths we would like to pursue.  Working in a culture vastly different from our own also taught us so much about the importance of patience, initiative, creativity, and self-awareness. In learning so much about other people and their lives, we even learned a lot about ourselves, bringing benefit to everyone in the process. Our community benefited from our new input and skills. Each international volunteer brings something new to the program, whether it be new games for P.E. class, effective drills to use for basketball practice, or the writing skills to prepare a sound fundraising proposal. We found that our best contribution, however, was the analysis of our HIV/AIDS research and education program. With recent data and a full HIV education curriculum, our community partner can continue the education program with further insight into attitudes and knowledge of HIV in the community.


After our experience with DukeEngage, we have both continued upon the work we began in different ways:


Sarah’s interest in sports development motivated her senior thesis, in which she wrote about the impact of athletic participation on the educational aspirations of student-athletes. After graduating in May 2013, she will be returning to Zambia for a year to work with African Impact in Livingstone, through which she will be coordinating volunteer projects and potentially developing or improving African Impact’s sports coaching program.


Chrissy used the lessons she learned in Zambia through an internship with a Tuberculosis and Child Vaccination advocacy group in DC. Her work with HIV/AIDS was particularly relevant when she attended the International AIDS Conference in DC during her internship. The challenges from inefficiencies that Chrissy encountered during her project in Zambia additionally inspired her to get involved in innovative problem solving, which she will pursue when working in the Federal Services practice at Accenture next year.


Sport in Action Zambia (SIA) is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) whose purpose is to improve people’s quality of life through sport and recreational activities. Founded in 1998, SIA was the first Zambian sports NGO. With Sport for Development (the use of sport as a tool for social change) as its underlying principle, SIA positively impacts the lives of thousands of children throughout 24 districts in Zambia.

In the summer of 2011, I coordinated environmental education programs in HaMakuya, South Africa, a rural community near Kruger National Park.  Although HaMakuya is located next to one of the country’s most popular destinations for environmental tourism, the community sees little benefit from the park, and many people suffer from poverty and resource scarcity. Working with a partner organization called Tshulu Trust, I set up environmental education programs at the Makuya Empowered Voices Resource Centre, which had been built by Tshulu the year before.


Unlike most DukeEngage participants, I had visited my site before starting the project.  In the fall of 2010, I spent a semester abroad in South Africa through the Organization for Tropical Studies, and as part of that semester, I stayed with a family in HaMakuya and conducted surveys in the community.  One of my professors, Dr. Lara Allen, was also the Programme Manager for Tshulu Trust, and at the end of the semester, she informed the entire class that Tshulu’s first official volunteer program would be taking place that coming summer.  She was planning to speak with Duke Engage about the possibilities for sending Duke students.  When I learned about these efforts, I saw a perfect opportunity to return to HaMakuya.  By the time I boarded my plane back to the states, I had already started my Independent Project application.  Over the next several months, I worked frequently with Dr. Allen over Skype to complete my application and develop my project.


When I arrived in HaMakuya in early June, I was eager to finally get started.  The next eight weeks were exciting and exhausting, frustrating and fulfilling, and sometimes extremely bizarre. Every day was a learning experience. Flexibility was essential. When I woke up each morning, I had clear plan in my head for what I was going to do, but by the time I went to sleep, the day had run an entirely different course. Although I spent much of my time working on my computer in the Resource Centre, I also conducted interviews and focus groups, met with teachers and community leaders, led environmental education programs, and took time to get to know the culture and personalities of the people around me.  I worked closely with Reuben Tshitangano, a HaMakuya resident who had just been hired to run programs at the Resource Centre, and over the course of eight weeks, I trained him to handle things on his own. We also became good friends during that time, and we continue to stay in touch.  Even with help, planning a full agenda of initiatives could get tricky, especially when my short-term work schedule conflicted with the long-term mindset of community members (I was only staying in HaMakuya for eight weeks, but most of the community members would stay in HaMakuya for a lifetime). Reuben’s presence helped ease this disparity, but I still tried to cram a lot of initiatives into a short period of time, and it didn’t always work out.


Despite the challenges, I accomplished a lot during my project, far more than Dr. Allen expected. When I arrived, there were no environmental education programs running at the Resource Centre, but when I left, there was a strong framework that will hopefully last for years to come.  To create this framework, I ran two major programs at the Resource Centre and made plans for several more, I helped six primary schools to start becoming Eco-Schools through the South African Eco-Schools program, and I conducted research that will benefit future projects in HaMakuya.  I am currently analyzing the data I collected in an independent study, and I plan to write a thesis based on my findings.  My project also had many impacts that were less tangible yet just as important.  My presence in the community exposed people to a different culture and perspective on the world, and it gave them the opportunity to practice English with a native speaker. Tshulu plans to run more volunteer programs in the future, so my work set an encouraging precedent.  On a personal level, I immersed myself in a different culture, and by learning about that culture, I gained a better understanding of my own life and identity.  I also gained skills in leadership and organization that will serve me well in my life after Duke. In terms of material gains, I received a live chicken as a gift, but I didn’t bring it home because I didn’t think I could get it past customs.


To anyone considering a Duke Engage Independent Project, I would highly recommend the experience.  It requires patience, flexibility, and a lot of prior planning, but in the end, it is completely worth the effort.  The opportunity to plan and execute your own service project anywhere in the world is not available to everyone, so don’t take it for granted.  If you need suggestions about where to go, there’s always work to be done in HaMakuya and I would be glad to help anyone interested in planning a project.


DukeEngage shaped the course of by Duke experience and continues to influnce me today. My project cemented my dedication to working with environmental issues in the developing world, and it inspired me to pursue similar opportunities after graduating.
Ben Soltoff majored in Biology and Environmental Sciences and Policy, with English Minor. Following his DukeEngage project, Ben was a Hart Fellow in Jodhpur, India, where he spent 10 months researching the effects of climate change on rural communities in the Thar Desert.
Tshulu Trust aims to enhance responsible well being and achieve sustainable livelihoods by improving the ability of community members to utilize their natural and cultural resources in an optimal and sustainable manner. In 2012, DukeEngage participant Katie Guidera partnered with Tshulu Trust, and the organization hosted two DukeEngage engineering majors in 2013.