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The DukeEngage Communications team interviewed Purnima Shah, Associate Professor of the Practice of Dance and Director of DukeEngage-Ahmedabad. This profile is part of an interview series that aims to share how DukeEngage programs impact community members, partners, and students. Follow us on Instagram for more content like this!

What sparked your idea for a DukeEngage program?

I have been interested in community service since my undergraduate years, when I used to participate actively in youth programs led by the local Lions Club. Now, with each passing year of leading the DukeEngage-Ahmedabad program, I often wish I too had a similar opportunity during my undergraduate years. During the past few decades, a booming corporate industry and the availability of microcredit programs for small scale ‘informal’ entrepreneurial opportunities in urban India have attracted millions of displaced and impoverished rural residents to urban regions seeking employment in hourly/daily jobs. But at the same time, they are neither able to afford basic education, health care and nutrition for their children, nor pursue vocations for their youth or women. I thought it would be a great service experience for DukeEngage students to work with our partner nonprofit organization Saath, on their community projects that strive to provide better opportunities to these migrant communities, especially women and children. One cannot deny that the learning experiences involved with the DukeEngage program during a student’s formative years could motivate a deeper maturity, sharper receptivity and an empathetic perspective of the social and political issues that some of the not-so-visible under-served communities are subjected to grapple with.

What do you hope students will take from the DukeEngage experience?

This international DukeEngage program motivates students to interact with rural communities from diverse cultures in western India. They learn to develop social responsibility; through their interactions, they acquire deeper awareness of their cultural identity and learn to respect differences as much as to respect human beings less privileged than themselves; and they gain new global perspectives. Our weekly guest talks educate them in the arts, culture, history and civilizational value systems. The language training and reflection sessions encourage students to improve writing, communication and analytical skills. They participate in discussions with interns from other schools. Their local project mentors guide them with local research methods in the context of their project work, they also learn non-verbal interactive communication skills with different communities they serve, and on the whole, acquire a better understanding of the functioning of the non-profit social sector. Towards the end of the summer program, I have observed year after year that majority of students gain a certain sense of self-discovery through the service-learning experience.


Student in DukeEngage t-shirt standing in front of Taj Mahal


What benefit does your DukeEngage program offer the community/partners?

Our NGO partner offers an elaborate educational program for training interns, that DukeEngage students partake in, with an aim to help develop leadership skills and instill a keen interest in community service at a younger age. Each student group is meticulously mentored by their project leaders all through the summer program. In return, the DukeEngage students work on project deliverables that the NGO could use, for instance, working on a STEM curriculum for the NGO’s school, 5th through 9th grades; preparing worksheets and manuals for teacher training; crafting product proposals for microcredit programs; creating home manager profiles for livelihood programs; creating a catalog for RWeaves, a project in aid of re-establishing traditional weavers who have lost their marketability; among several other project submissions.


Students and children holding drawings


What is your advice on how to stay civically engaged while physically apart?

Due to the safety concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19, DukeEngage cancelled all onsite programs this year. As an alternative suggested by the DukeEngage administrators, I worked together with the NGO project mentors and we came up with a set of online projects that the student participants would be able to do. The mentors, students and I meet over Zoom every alternate week and reflect on their work in progress. The mentors meet regularly with the students, guide them and lead their online projects. Hopefully, the students will come up with interesting deliverables that will benefit the NGO this year too.