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.
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.
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.