In April, I began my DukeEngage experience with a series of virtual meetings and seminars called the Fortin Foundation DukeEngage Academy. We commenced our first meeting with an introduction to the mission statement of DukeEngage: “DukeEngage empowers students to address critical human needs by fully funding a summer of immersive service, in the process transforming students, advancing the University’s educational mission, and providing meaningful assistance to communities in the U.S. and abroad.”
At first look, this goal seemed like a tall order to me. While I was excited about the opportunity to engage in service via DukeEngage, I was skeptical about whether I could truly be “transformed” in a virtual format. More than a year of remote classes had eroded my patience and optimism about the efficiency and productivity of online learning. Frustrated by Zoom fatigue, lack of in-person opportunities, and burnout from a year of stress about the pandemic, I questioned whether the mission statement of DukeEngage would even be relevant to my experience with the program this year. However, over the course of my DukeEngage experience, I have revised my definition of service and concluded that this mission statement is still central to the program.
My project for DukeEngage in collaboration with NGO Saath based in Ahmedabad, India, assessed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on expenditures of families living in urban slums in five different areas of Ahmedabad, an area hit particularly hard by a second wave. We began the project by designing a survey to evaluate specific family expenses and how they have changed over the course of the pandemic. The survey was translated into the Gujarati, Ahmedabad’s regional language, by our Saath mentor Mr. Raju Param, and a local field team administered the survey and provided the consolidated results. It took approximately 3 weeks for this data to be generated, and during this time, my work mainly consisted of researching Ahmedabad and the urban slum population in order to generate a study report.
When I first envisioned service through DukeEngage, I had pictured direct interaction with the population I would serve, as well as cultural immersion. Clearly, my experience did not check these boxes due to the pandemic related travel restrictions; my work was primarily research based, so I had no interaction with the families that I was evaluating or with the field team. However, though my project did not adhere to my preconceived notions of service, I would argue that I ultimately did succeed in fulfilling the mission statement of DukeEngage.
Engaging in this project in a research-oriented manner has enabled me to approach community service from a holistic perspective, making use of what I have learned in the classroom. As a biology major and psychology/sociology minor, I have learned and re-learned the scientific method and research life cycle in nearly every class I have taken. This project has allowed me to put this process into action in a real-world setting, learning how to implement a research methodology that I would not be able to apply in a classroom or laboratory. Conducting significant background research via literature review of academic articles, Indian newspapers, and news sites has also enabled me to contextualize my project. Urban health disparities constitute a structural issue; a holistic view is required to understand the scope of the problem prior to finding ways to address it. Thus, though I haven’t been able to directly interact with the underserved families included in our study, I have been able to understand its significant impact due to this birds-eye view.
Later, I was able to put this holistic understanding to use via our social media campaign #EducationEmpowers, which we launched in late June to raise funds for school supplies used in supplementary classes in urban slums in Ahmedabad. Prior to this experience, I had never planned or executed a fundraiser, and I very rarely posted on social media. However, due to the program being virtual, I had to go through a quick learning curve in order to understand not only how to communicate on social media, but also how to talk to a general audience about social disparities. These skills are incredibly valuable, and I was forced to very quickly hone them due to our campaign. The research-based nature of my project and the virtual format of our fundraising campaign have thus helped me become a more effective communicator.
Furthermore, the virtual format of the program has required me to build a strong social network to aid with the project. For instance, in order to contextualize the study and develop background knowledge of Ahmedabad and urban slums, my project team met with Dr. Nimisha Shukla, an economics professor from Ahmedabad whom we met online at our weekly program reflection session. Additionally, due to the virtual nature of the program, we, DukeEngage interns, have had to develop a strong relationship with each other and with our Saath project mentor, who has been our only access point to the population we are serving. Thus, the virtual format of DukeEngage has driven us to build our teamwork and collaboration skills.
I came into DukeEngage with rigid preconceived notions about community service, especially in a foreign community. However, over the course of my DukeEngage experience, I have revised my image of service. Especially with increasing globalization, dependence on technology, and use of social media, approaches to community engagement are expanding and evolving. While virtual service is limited in its opportunities for direct interaction and cultural immersion, it has huge potential to “address critical human needs” and “provide meaningful assistance.” Thus, for me, the DukeEngage mission statement has survived the test of the COVID-19 pandemic.
DukeEngage in Ahmedabad Student 2021