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Although Melissa Benn spent her 2012 DukeEngage summer in Thailand, her post-Duke path has focused on Africa. From working as a project manager for a food security monitoring program in Ethiopia and Sudan to her current role supporting sustainable agricultural and economic diversification in Malawi, Melissa continues to make a difference by empowering the communities she serves.

Why did you choose your DukeEngage program/independent project?

I had never been to the Asian continent and was really excited to explore and discover a new culture and part of the world. Duke also opened my eyes to the amount of privilege I had grown accustomed to, and I was eager to give back and support community development in an area that needed the services.

Did DukeEngage influence your academic or career path? If so, how?

DukeEngage made me think critically about how communities are empowered and how we can sustainably promote social and economic development. It was also a key milestone that helped me to realize that I wanted to continue to experience different cultures, promote empowerment, and pursue a career in international development. So yes!

What was the most meaningful part of your DukeEngage experience (personally, academically, or professionally)?

The most meaningful part of my experience were the Thai people we met along the way, who graciously shared their wisdom and experiences. Pi Fon, Pi Ek, Jojo, Pawn, the village elders, the children we taught English to in the mornings, the café owners that served the best mango sticky rice on the planet. I’m still connected to a few on Facebook and we chat sometimes, even 7 years later.

Students at a temple in Thailand.
Melissa and others from the DukeEngage-Thailand program in 2012.

Do you have a specific lesson learned from your DukeEngage experience that still holds true today? If so, what was it?

Before DukeEngage, I wanted to help the poor because I felt guilty for growing up privileged, and I could only imagine the poor facing hard, sad lives. After my experience in Thailand, experiencing firsthand the warmth, kindness, and joy that permeated so many lives, I was able to begin to appreciate that good development is about empowering people with opportunity.

Are you still connected to DukeEngage? If so, how and why?

I have recently joined the DukeEngage alumni working group! I loved my Thailand experience and want to help ensure that it continues to empower future Duke students, as it taught me so much. Looking forward to staying involved for the foreseeable future!

Do you think DukeEngage is an important program? Why or why not?

Absolutely. A large part of being an empathetic, educated, and compassionate global citizen is appreciating the joy in a plethora of global human experiences and appreciating how different people live.

What’s one thing you want people to know about DukeEngage—in general or about your particular experience?

I’m so thankful to the Gates family [and others] for their support of this programming, and for opening up so many Duke student’s perceptions! I hope this program is able to continue for a long time.