How Duke engages: Service

At a recent event for incoming first-year undergraduates, new students were asked to raise their hands if they had taken part in civic engagement in high school. Nearly every hand in the room went up. When asked to give examples of their civic engagement, the students all named service activities: tutoring younger students, volunteering at a charity golf tournament, serving at a soup kitchen. Civic engagement on university campuses, however, has many definitions, and the debate around its “true” definition is surprisingly contentious. The DOCE works not to define civic engagement at large, but how Duke engages civically.

Community service and civic engagement are sometimes seen as synonyms, but community service is actually just one category under the larger umbrella of civic engagement. We have identified five ways Duke engages; community service, however, is by far the largest category. On our website, we have listed 63 courses, 110 student organizations and 22 university programs that allow students, faculty, staff and alumni to engage through community service.

A common criticism of the community service approach is that it often treats the symptoms of societal problems, rather than the actual problems. The language around working “for” a population can be inherently problematic, implying that the population being “served” is incapable of surviving without the care of more affluent people. This concern is particularly true for groups like Duke students, who have access to many more resources than most of the population. Another concern is that the academic calendar does not always fit community needs: what happens when a class ends, students leave for the summer or a faculty member’s research funds run out?

However, Duke’s service programs have done much to counter these criticisms. Duke’s Service Learning program is a good example of a curricular initiative that encourages not only community service, but also coursework that allows for a deeper understanding of the societal context of the populations our university is serving. Programs like Service Learning exemplify Duke’s commitment to “knowledge in the service of society.” While there are an impressive number of students volunteering their time, and the total number of hours served by Duke students is undoubtedly very high, we are at our best when we integrate community service work with our academic curriculum, as our service learning program has done so well. The community service experience is enriched when our students are given the proper skills to engage with cultural competency and empathy and to reflect upon and integrate their community service work with their broader intellectual interests.