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The DukeEngage Communications team interviewed Sherryl Broverman, Professor of the Practice in the Biology Department and the Duke Global Health Institute. Sherryl is the founder and president of WISER International, and has run the DukeEngage-Kenya-WISER program for more than a decade. 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 working in Kenya doing research service-learning with students since 2003 and my programmatic development with the WISER NGO served as one possible model for DukeEngage. I was actually part of the pilot program as DukeEngage ramped up to full strength and also served as Vice-Chair of the inaugural faculty advisory board. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to be part of DukeEngage from the beginning as it was congruent with my pedagogical and mentoring practices.

What do you believe students have taken away from the experience over the years?

Students learn so much and often not what they think they will learn. Most of academia provides clean, tight problems for students to solve rather than the messy, complex, ambiguous ones in real life. Learning how to deal with ambiguity is a real challenge. Students also learn about the scope of problems, how hard they can be to solve, and the historical antecedents that caused them, which contextualizes their eight-week experience and reduces any ‘world saving’ ideas. In my program, students also learn about the gendered impact of educational and health inequity, as well as how national policy plays out differently in different local contexts. Students also develop a new lens and a community that initially felt foreign becomes home. When we first drive up, I point out a little tin roofed shack on the side of the road and say ‘that’s where you can walk to get a cold soda’ and some students’ shoulders hunch up to their ears. But in a few days, they are running down there in the evening and know the shopkeeper by name. Finally, they learn to socialize without technology. We have limited access to power and most down time is spent reading, chatting, or going for walks.


Three girls jumping
DukeEngage-Kenya-WISER 2015


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

Our community partners are always so eager for us to come back and sometimes ask for more than we can do. For the last few years, my students have been working with the local Ministry of Health clinic to do data analyses on their files, particularly of their HIV/AIDS treatment program, and prepare health records to be digitized. Duke students helped establish the first engineering club, which now runs year-round and whose participants are now competitive in national science fairs. Some students from Pratt came one year and introduced robotics and coding, which now is done routinely in our computer lab. DukeEngage students have been pivotal in helping us expand our sexual and reproductive health outreach programs. Perhaps most significantly, Duke students did an analysis of the impact of the WISER clean water distribution system that led to a new $250,000 grant from USAID to expand the water system to a much larger population.


Three students speaking in front of their peers.


What benefits do you see for students and faculty in the type of experiential learning offered by programs like DukeEngage?

Most education in the US treats problem solving as students trying to find the answer the teacher already knows. In community-based work there often isn’t one correct answer and it can be messy trying to develop any solution. This is phenomenal preparation for students for many jobs, careers, and approaches to life. For myself, one of the most gratifying parts of my career has been the opportunity to live and work closely with students while in Kenya. From debating research strategies to stargazing at the constellations of the southern hemisphere to strategizing how to cook tacos for 14 people on a one burner stove for a taste of home, it has been a wonderful experience. I often become mentors, official or unofficial, to the students in the program and have developed decades long friendships.

How does/has this program align with/impact your research or teaching?

All of my teaching is about infectious disease and social injustice so the DukeEngage-WISER program connects to all my courses. I do undergraduate research with many students while they are in Kenya and many return to the site to continue research for honors theses. Students from DukeEngage have been authors on many of my published papers, so they are critical parts of my research endeavors.

What will you miss most about not running a program this summer?

My students! After all the orientation, build up, and getting to know the students’ passions, it was hard to tell them we wouldn’t be working together this year. On a personal note, this is the first time I haven’t been in Kenya in almost 20 years, so I miss all my Kenyan colleagues and friends. We also had some very important projects to do this year, such as another clean water distribution analysis whose data I hoped would bring in funding to expand clean water access to the poorest and most isolated part of the community.

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

We certainly have lots of civic issues in the US and many organizations are switching to online training and action. We are fortunate in the US that so many people have internet access and can engage in conversations, debates, forums, and outreach. For my past DukeEngage students, I know they are on What’sApp and Facebook, talking to the friends they made in Kenya. I will hear from one of them, ‘hey did WISER just close for a school break? I started getting text messages from Debra again at 3 am.” The time zone differences are always problematic.

Students in tree
This tree was the inspiration for the WISER logo. When first developing the concept of WISER, we held multiple community meetings or harambees. (Harambee means ‘all put together’ in Swahili.) Since there was no building big enough for several hundred people, gatherings would be under a tree for shade. WISER adopted the tree as a logo to indicate that the community voice has to be at the center of all we do. Each year, DukeEngage students make a ‘pilgrimage’ to see and climb the original WISER tree. Pictured L to R: Leah Catotti, Colleen Trotter, Brianna Acosta, Natalie Lubin, Sarah Hendrix, Tara-Marie Desruisseaux, Tierney Pretzer, Khalifa Wright, and Michael Sutton.