When Joseph Hsiung applied to Duke, like many 17- and 18-year-olds, he was looking for a college experience that was life-defining. The son of two software engineers, Joseph grew up in California watching the Apple empire transform his hometown of Cupertino into the heart of Silicon Valley almost overnight. With the highest levels of research and development happening right in his backyard, Joseph knew that rigorous academic coursework preparing him for the real world was his first order of business. But after living in the same house his entire life, Joseph also had a notion that opportunities outside of the classroom were just as important.
“When I was applying to college, I already knew about DukeEngage. It’s one of the components of Duke that attracted me to even apply,” says Joseph, now a junior at Duke University.
In its first decade as Duke’s signature service-learning program, DukeEngage has been wildly successful. Each summer it sends roughly 400 undergraduates to spend eight weeks in communities in the U.S. and around the globe. Doing so, it has garnered an incredible amount of interest from potential students. And it has become a model program for what other institutions of means are doing in the civic engagement space, places such as Cornell, Stanford, Princeton and many others, with highly ambitious students who want to make a difference.
A big part of the draw of DukeEngage is the prospect of experiential learning. Seeing, feeling, failing, adjusting, learning, compromising, failing again, improvising and experiencing the real world. And its real problems. In the context of unknown cultures, languages and landscapes. On the fly. With uncontrollable variables – and just as many unpredictable outcomes.
At first, it’s frustrating. Students who come to Duke seem to have all the answers and ace any exam you can imagine. But that’s also where the program’s inherent value lies. Students work within communities of need to help address issues of local, and often global, importance. The problems they are working on can’t easily be solved, and positive change that results from Duke’s presence is often incremental. Yet over time, Duke has built a global network of social engagement by working closely with partner organizations that help set the goals that Duke students accomplish. This means that as community needs change over time, the DukeEngage experience for students also changes.
The other irreplaceable benefit of DukeEngage is its reciprocity: Duke students come back forever changed by what they experience. The lessons learned follow them as they transition into alumni, and to their posts as academicians, policy-makers, business leaders, innovators, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, medical professionals and artists.
Eric Mlyn is Peter Lange Executive Director of DukeEngage and the assistant vice provost of civic engagement at Duke.“We really rock the worlds of our young people who are getting these really out-of-comfort-zone experiences. That’s my take on this after doing it for a long time,” says Eric Mlyn, the Peter Lange Executive Director of DukeEngage and the assistant vice provost of civic engagement.
Mlyn has been an integral part of DukeEngage since 2006, when he led the taskforce first convened to envision such a program. There was an upstart idea behind launching something so bold: Duke wanted to get students out of the classroom and into the world through the experiential magic of civic engagement. Ultimately, the program needed to match the highest ambitions of the university and put into practice social engagement in a way that would allow students to contribute to Duke’s strategic theme of knowledge in the service of society year after year. With a transformational $15 million gift from Melinda Gates ’86, M.B.A.’87 and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that was then matched by The Duke Endowment, the first cohort of DukeEngage students was inducted just months later.
Now, 12 years in, 23.5 percent of Duke’s 2018 graduating class participated in DukeEngage. The program’s motto – Challenge yourself. Change your world. – has accrued compound interest in its meaning for Duke and the students who have completed it. And with a new strategic plan in place for the next five years, DukeEngage 2022: Building on Impact, the program continues to grow just as ambitiously.
“Just walk around campus and tap on somebody’s shoulder and say, ‘How was your DukeEngage experience?’ A few will say, ‘I haven’t done it.’ But very soon you’ll find somebody who did,” says Mlyn.
The big moment came for Joseph, when, he says, “I decided that the perfect time for me to do DukeEngage would be after my sophomore year.”
As a computer science major, Joseph zeroed in on the service-learning location that would complement his interests, including his background as an Eagle Scout. His roommate had completed DukeEngage-Thailand the previous summer, so he had the inside scoop on how amazing the experience was, in his words, “because it was so nature-based.” Joseph applied and was one of 15 students accepted to his cohort.
A lot was running through his head at the time. “You really can’t understand a place, or its people, in a short period of time, or if you’re only coming at it from a tourist perspective,” says Joseph.
Soon he’d help develop and promote conservation efforts in Phang Nga, on the western coast of Thailand. His excitement stemmed mostly from getting to live there for two months to work hands-on with sea turtles, which he had not done before. Plus, Joseph knew the program promised to be more than so-called “voluntourism,” from which DukeEngage consciously avoids. Though he and other students would be visiting some of the world’s most renowned beaches for their scenic beauty, the environmental issues facing the biologically diverse wildlife in Thailand would require hard work.
For Maddie Go, a member of the same cohort, her introduction to DukeEngage went a little bit differently. Maddie grew up and went to high school in the Philippines, but her family has a deep Duke history. Her father, Loewe Ong Go ’84, M.D.’88, attended Duke on his way to becoming a cardiologist; he urged Maddie to consider his alma mater. Once she saw a picture of a lemur online at the Duke Lemur Center, she was hooked. The science opportunities in zoology-related fields brought her to Duke, where she is a junior biology major concentrating in marine biology. Luckily, Maddie knew a classmate in her DukeEngage-Thailand cohort from a pre-orientation program they had taken together freshman year. Many others in the cohort were strangers at the start.
The assembly of each cohort of DukeEngage students is something like a microcosm of Duke. It reflects a cross-section of the university’s undergraduate student body as a whole: the multidisciplinary strengths and interests of an elite liberal arts institution that is also a Research I university. Every student brings a unique offering to bear, empowering their team to learn and grow together. One of the things Maddie brought with her to Thailand was an experience she had in a class at the Duke Marine Lab. As part of the class, she worked with leatherback sea turtles in the bioluminescent bays of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
After meeting her DukeEngage-Thailand cohort, Maddie says, “It surprised me that we were all from different fields. There were public policy, mechanical engineering and computer science majors – only two of us were biology.”
As the students prepared for their trip, each was required to take part in pre-departure meetings and online learning modules, and participate in Duke’s annual Fortin Foundation DukeEngage Academy. In addition to being one of the largest undergraduate civic engagement conferences in the world, the academy trains all DukeEngage participants for their experiences. Every program also has a faculty advisor who primes students to be ready.
“My main role is to prepare them to go,” says Nicki Cagle, a lecturer in environmental science and policy at the Nicholas School of the Environment and director of its communications studio. Cagle has been with the DukeEngage-Thailand program since 2014 as a faculty fellow. She helps students develop a level of comfort with the experience – because parts of it are so challenging.
Nicki Cagle is a lecturer at the Nicholas School of the Environment, director of its communications studio, and a DukeEngage faculty fellow.Cagle says that, with many of the discussions beforehand, students gather and discuss “the cultural implications of volunteerism, the biodiversity and environmental issues of where they are going – and how to develop an awareness of the culture and context into which they’re entering.”
It’s difficult to instill experiential principles in the classroom. But Cagle prepares students to teach English as a foreign language to their Thai counterparts, many of whom they live and work closely with in the coastal fishing village of Ban Nam Khem. Words and phrases like “hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you” and “please” are all that’s needed to start a conversation or break down barriers. But in Thai, there are different signal words to indicate whether or not the speaker is male or female, too, so Cagle helps students avoid mistakes that could potentially be embarrassing.
Maddie was interested to work with sea turtles again. This time she would capture the sights and sounds of their adventures on a GoPro camera as the communications liaison of her cohort. But she was apprehensive about taking a trip to a country and culture she wasn’t overly familiar with.
“I will say I’m not the most socially adept person, so it was scary thinking about how I would interact,” says Maddie. She hoped her background in tutoring would prepare her for the teaching aspect of the program, but there was an extra hurdle of language. Even so, considering the variables, she felt a lot of excitement.
Joseph, too, although slightly nervous, was overpowered by excitement: “It’s breathtakingly beautiful, flying in and seeing everything.”
Stationed in Phang Nga along the Gulf of Thailand, Duke students hope to learn the lay of the land quickly so they can make as much impact on themselves and the community as possible. In a section made up of over a thousand miles of coastland, limestone islets topped with verdant tropic greenery dot the bay. The beach and ocean’s edge are just a short walk away. It’s idyllic.
But if the allure of the tropics is what first motivates many students to apply, soaking in the history of the region is even more gripping. Thai communities in its southern provinces were ravaged by a tsunami spawned from the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Phang Nga was badly hit in what ended up being one of the most devastating natural disasters in recorded history, killing over 5,400 people in Thailand alone. Though things have recovered, evidence of the tsunami’s catastrophic wake is still present: The lived trauma of such events do not pass lightly, or simply go away. After recent extreme weather events in North Carolina that have impacted the Duke Marine Lab and many other communities in the state, Cagle has added this as a conversation point for new students as they prepare for next year.
Beyond the human-centric concerns, ecological practices and conservation are central to Duke’s civic engagement mission in Thailand, so possessing working knowledge of the biodiversity there is key. In Southeast Asia, much of that biodiversity is threatened by urban development and agricultural practices. The challenge is amplified because the biome of Thailand is so rich, with many species having yet to be catalogued.
“That puts us in a real bind,” says Cagle. “We can be losing species that we don’t even know exist, and it makes the biodiversity aspect of DukeEngage-Thailand particularly important.”
Most DukeEngage programs are led by Duke faculty and staff. But in some cases, DukeEngage forges partnerships with volunteer sending organizations to work on-site with community-based groups and nonprofits to develop programs and student projects that align with DukeEngage’s mission and goals. In Thailand, Duke has made important connections by working with Global Vision International (GVI) as its volunteer sending organization. GVI has helped to solidify Duke in the region by abiding to sustainable development goals set by the United Nations. Rounding out the resources available to students, they can turn to GVI officials and volunteers at any point during their civic learning in Thailand for guidance, course correction or other needs – and to faculty fellows such as Cagle for a further enriched experience.
For Maddie, Joseph and the rest of the cohort, time was spent primarily between two activities. The first of these activities was in caring for the sea turtles at the Royal Thai Navy Base. There are many cultural implications of the turtles being located there, but mainly it dictates when a sea turtle can be released into the wild. Usually, this is only done by officials and only on national holidays – so that it doesn’t become a photo-op for tourists. The baby sea turtles there, known as hatchlings, weigh only a few ounces at birth. They could easily fit into your outstretched palms. Or get lost in the big, wide ocean. One can see why these turtles are part of a nationally sanctioned head-start program, which raises them in captivity until they have reached a certain maturation that ensures a higher rate of survival in the wild.
“Head-start programs are somewhat controversial,” says Joseph. “There’s a statistic that one in 1,000 to 10,000 sea turtles – only one survives to adulthood in the wild.” Sea turtles swim far and deep into the boundless ocean, with only females returning to shore to lay eggs. Further, tagging systems have not produced datasets that correlate the effectiveness of head-start programs for sea turtles. As the students learned, every culture has different approaches to complex problems.
For some students, the resources available to the turtles began to feel tight after spending time with them. The tanks required nonstop cleaning, and the ratio of the number of turtles to space-to-swim was limited. The students also had to create feeding enrichment devices from minimal resources like coral, Wiffle balls and seaweed, to simulate the difficulties of finding food in the wild. Then, they collected scientific data by observing the turtles feeding and swimming habits to help set the stage for deeper analyses in the future.
The other activity that kept the cohort busy during the summer in Thailand was teaching English as a foreign language. For this community engagement portion, Joseph was part of a smaller group that taught English language lessons as a part of their conservation efforts. Through his interactions, he quickly learned that many of the people he was teaching lessons to had faced difficulties he had never encountered in America.
“The bond we formed was more than just a teacher-student relationship; we learned about each other’s backgrounds,” says Joseph. “I would sit and talk to them after dinner and just get to know them.”
One of the things that struck him was revealed when his group was teaching curriculum that consisted of a small amount of English vocabulary. It was considerably difficult with no translator. Eventually, they found it effective to gamify the experience by adding a blindfolded scavenger hunt to their lesson. Thai students worked in teams to navigate an obstacle course, from which they could learn the vocabulary. At the beginning, Joseph noticed that the scavenger hunt was a chaotic mess. But with the right amount of trust being built over time, and with a competitive spirit infused between the teams, everyone got into it. The experience of not knowing where to go, or what would be needed, or having a set game plan on how goals would be accomplished, rang familiar to Joseph. Having faith enough in the process to be present, and to learn and adapt as needed, is part of what DukeEngage taught him.
In one of the most rewarding aspects of her role as a faculty fellow with the program, Cagle sees students crystalize a valuable takeaway in these sorts of moments: They have a wealth of knowledge and experience that they can share with others. “Students are so used to being in the role of the student, that it can really take them off-guard to be in the teaching world,” says Cagle.
The village clean-up activity shocked Maddie the most. In the Philippines and other places, she had seen rivers and bays clogged with plastic bags. Seeing trash on the beaches in Thailand, she knew how it would affect marine and other wildlife. “I really hate littering. I want to go out there and clean up everything.”
So she participated in several beach cleans to promote the recycling of trash in the local community, but the ocean brought more trash back every day. Eventually, it became difficult for Maddie to see where she was making a difference – or if she was making a difference. Then she realized she wasn’t going to change pollution anywhere overnight. Maddie dug deeper on how best to allocate her time in Thailand, eventually setting up a full-day workshop at an elementary school to teach schoolkids about pollution. At the workshop, Maddie contributed lessons in both English and Thai about marine animals and how plastic and other pollution is harmful to them.
Throughout each DukeEngage program, students reflect on what it is they’ve learned. After a summer embedded in social learning, the students have undone much of what they thought they knew, or seen it in new light. And this undoing of self can be very humanizing. “The question that students often come back with is, ‘Why aren’t we doing this work at home?’” says Cagle.
DukeEngage hosts a number of programs domestically, with several long-running examples in the south. For alum Ethan Marks ’11, DukeEngage-Charlotte was one of the best experiences he had at Duke. The summer before his senior year, Marks went through the program and had an internship at a nonprofit called the Council for Children’s Rights, which provides legal services and researches public policy issues affecting children. Marks was interested in this experience, instead of a traditional internship model, because he was thinking of applying to law school.
“I used the summer purposely to explore working at a legal organization,” says Marks. “I did a good amount of policy work. But I also had a chance to go into court and see the work attorneys were doing there.”
While in Charlotte, Marks also began to see what it meant to graduate from Duke. “We had a lot of contact with the amazing alumni network in Charlotte,” says Marks. “We met Duke alums who were working in industries that we were interested in entering.”
Marks used the experience as an affirmation of his ambitions and went to law school at Boston College. Now, he works as an intellectual property litigation associate in Boston and continues to stay connected to Duke through DukeEngage-Boston as a coordinator of its mentor program and other activities that connect the students with local alumni. He’s also on the regional alumni board there and is involved with Duke Alums Engage, an annual program sponsored by the Duke Alumni Association, which connects Duke alumni across the country to volunteer events.
“DukeEngage teaches you what it’s like to be in a community of community service,” says Marks, sharing an apt phrase he heard during his time in Charlotte, and he wants to carry it on. “Once you graduate, it’s not just what you do in terms of your job title. It’s also how engaged you are in the community.”
Back in Thailand, Maddie and Joseph also experienced something no other visitor, tourist or conservationist is likely to experience again for quite some time.
DukeEngage students cleaning sea turtles and checking them for infections. Photo by Joseph Hsiung.Toward the end of their stay, they set out to clean the turtle tanks as part of their usual routine — six tanks and “one very big tank,” as Joseph describes. The process, as Joseph says, “takes some critical thinking.” First, the turtles are removed from the tanks. Then, the tanks are drained, cleaned and scrubbed. While the tanks are being cleaned, the turtles are also checked for infections. If any infection is found, an antifungal solution is applied to prevent further infection, including its spreading to other turtles. With all of the tanks involved in the cleaning, and the amount of time it takes to clean each tank, the turtles can only be out of water for a small window of time. Or they risk being in the sun for too long.
On this particular day at the tanks, Joseph was having a rough day. He doesn’t remember why he was upset. Just that his body language communicated his mood. Finally, a Royal Thai lieutenant noticed him and immediately went to talk to the GVI program manager, Vanessa Rees.
“I didn’t speak a single word to that person beforehand, and he probably didn’t speak much English. Yet, on an emotional level, he just understood how to make me feel better,” says Joseph.
At that time, Maddie was having lunch at the turtle center’s café near the beach with some members of her cohort; she had her GoPro camera ready. She wasn’t near Joseph, so she didn’t know what was going on. Only that she had heard Joseph had been upset about something. Eventually, she saw Rees and the Royal Thai Navy lieutenant walking down the beach together with a pink basket in tow. As they got closer, Maddie was able to see into the basket and she says, she “freaked out.” There were two juvenile green turtles.
“It was an overcast day with a white-paper sky and sand and all the colors were washed out,” says Maddie. “We put the basket down near the shore and looked at it for a while.”
Finally, Rees spoke up: “Alright, we’re going to need two people to release these.”
The lieutenant requested specifically that Joseph release one of them. Maddie and Joseph with two juvenile turtles. Photo by Blaire Rikard.But it had not been determined who would release the other turtle. Maddie stayed quiet. Finally, she heard someone say, “Oh, Maddie should do it.” Then everyone joined in.
Maddie was honored that her cohort, who had been strangers just weeks ago, entrusted her to release it.
“I just remember the moments before I released it – looking out into the giant ocean and looking at the small turtle,” says Maddie. “There are odds this guy won’t survive – but that’s why we’re doing this, right?”
She whispered good luck and set the turtle gently on the sand. Both turtles started making their way out to the bay. First slowly, and then picking up their flippers more quickly, gathering speed. When the first wave hit, they were swept away.
DukeEngage officially launched its civic engagement program in 2007, thanks to the generous support and forward-thinking vision of The Duke Endowment and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As the program has increased in scope and reach over the years, DukeEngage has benefitted from the additional support of a growing number of generous and devoted alumni and friends. These individual, family and foundation contributionshave allowed DukeEngage to:
- Enroll 400 students each year; nearly 25 percent of eligible Duke undergraduates now participate.
- Improve the quality of student pre-departure preparation.
- Strengthen community partner communication channels.
Currently, about half of DukeEngage’s annual operating budget comes from philanthropy, with remaining support from Duke University.
With your support, we can continue to provide immersive service experiences for DukeEngage students and support Duke faculty and community partners who make our programs possible.