Duke (Barely) Engages
Sami Meyers (PPS ‘24)
Duke admissions strongly recommends that prospective students engage with their communities, so why does the school not make it easier to connect with Durham?
There are probably many reasons why Duke does not have a service hour requirement, but the more important question is: Why should Duke work to increase student volunteerism in Durham?
First, there is untapped potential in the current level of engagement. The most recent volunteer fair only had 175 students, staff, and faculty attendees combined: 175 people out of thousands of students, staff, and faculty members. That is a disappointing ratio; disappointing because that ratio represents the lack of impact made on the community that has been the home to thousands of students over the past 100 years. The low attendance at this event does not mean there are no students interested in engaging in the community. Instead, it points to the lack of awareness of such events. Thus, Duke must expand their community outreach approach with new tools to improve communication, so that those who are interested in and passionate about serving Durham can do so with ease.
With that, Duke boasts that they are a service-oriented school, blogs list them among the top of community service programs, but they could still do more. Duke has incredibly impactful service programs — think Duke Engage — but they need to shift the focus locally and expand. Out of 22 Duke Engage programs, there are only two placed in Durham. Keep in mind that there are also two programs in Washington, DC, and South Africa. Not to undermine the importance of the other Duke Engage projects, but Durham is a hub for social justice, immigrant, affordable housing, and many other areas of reform and need. If Duke reallocated some Duke Engage resources to Durham-focused projects, then we could help alleviate some of these community issues while allowing students to learn and build relationships. Most importantly, students could get hands-on experience year-round rather than dropping into a foreign community for six to eight weeks.
Now, Duke does offer some great opportunities through Service-Learning courses and the Hart Leadership program for students to get involved, but they could create a space for longer lasting and more meaningful experiences. I spoke to a director in Duke’s Office of Durham and Community Affairs, who suggests that faculty and staff should support and sponsor more approved service-oriented student groups to strengthen the connection between students and Durham. If there were more robust and visible student groups committed to fostering these relationships, then students could join together to work. Not only would this solution increase community engagement, but it would help students build stronger relationships by working through these problems where they share a common interest.
Furthermore, as students, we always hear of the “Duke-Durham relationship” and how it is a rocky one. So why don’t we make more of a conscious effort to fix it? By having students learn about the complicated and fascinating history of Durham, we can more meaningfully engage with the community. This education should come in the form of experiential learning, by getting out of the “Duke bubble” so that students can understand that there is a Durham beyond East Campus, West Campus, and the popular downtown Durham restaurants. Again, an increased number of student groups focused on particular areas could improve this relationship.
If none of these are reason enough for Duke to improve student engagement in Durham, then Duke should realize the direct positive impacts that community service and engagement has at the individual level. First, community engagement can expand one’s world view, offering them new perspectives when tackling everyday problems inside and outside the classroom. This will create a more knowledgeable and innovative student body. Furthermore, nearly all corporate entities are highlighting their social impact efforts. Students can differentiate themselves and standout amongst other applicants, by highlighting their community engagement experiences and emphasizing their shared commitment to making a positive impact on society.
There are many reasons that community service is important inside and outside of Duke and the Durham community. At such a high-caliber institution, we should have the same high caliber community engagement expectations. Duke needs to help its students who are passionate about connecting with Durham do so. They need to make it straightforward and simple: service clubs per interest, widespread marketing, and high levels of engagement. These community connections will improve students’ entire educational experience, foster a sincere appreciation for Durham, and help unite Duke and Durham.
Sami Meyers (PPS ‘24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.