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Alex Swain has always been interested in public service. At Duke, she was student government president and worked with Durham and Regional Affairs. And she chose DukeEngage-Cape Town so she could work on women’s rights at the Women’s Legal Centre in South Africa.

“I was interested in a project that had a legal component, and South Africa had a women’s center placement,” she said. “The similarities between the American civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid struggle is also one of the things that interested me in that particular region.”

DukeEngage helped Swain get out of her comfort zone. She also learned a valuable lesson about leadership from program directors William Chafe and Robert Korstad. “It’s all about learning how to take a step back and getting to know the people and their problems. You can’t assume that you know the problem more than the people who are in that community experiencing it,” she said. “I think that’s a guiding principle to how I see leadership.”

After Duke, Swain attended Columbia Law School. The summer following her first year, she interned with Sanctuary for Families, an organization dedicated to the safety and healing of victims of domestic violence—and, coincidentally, a community partner of the DukeEngage-New York program.

“I learned a lot from that organization,” she said. “It gave me an opportunity to do a legal internship when I was still in law school.”

Swain also joined the DukeEngage National Advisory Board, where she works on “big picture” issues related to DukeEngage such as the program’s direction and the role of civic engagement at Duke.

As a DukeEngage alumna, Swain believes that sometimes students interested in DukeEngage may want to romanticize issues, such as living in a developing country and trying to make a big improvement or impact on that community.

“But DukeEngage is more about the big impact on who you are and how you deal with complex issues—that self-awareness is key to good leadership and necessary for being effective in social justice work,” she said. “DukeEngage is also about recognizing the importance of incremental change and how helping a few people can make a real difference in a community.”