On May 4th and 5th, days before graduation ceremonies began on our campus, over 540 faculty, staff and students gathered for the seventh annual Fortin Foundation DukeEngage Academy. The intensive two-day series of topical and skills workshops is mandatory for any undergraduate participating in any of the 40 eight-week immersive learning opportunities offered in the U.S. or abroad this summer. A total of 423 Duke students successfully applied to participate in this year’s suite of programs and independent projects. More than 3200 have participated in our DukeEngage experiential civic engagement program since it began eight years ago.
It is now widely believed that experiential programs, like DukeEngage, are great learning opportunities for students to apply their classroom knowledge to issues in the real world. A recent article that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, however, questions whether or not experiential education is an effective means of preparing students for today’s workforce.
Each year our DukeEngage students are taught specific skills and topical knowledge before participating in an eight-week service experience off-campus. A closer look at the pre-departure training that they receive through the Academy as well as quantitative data on skills applied in the field, suggests that our students do, in fact, acquire both hard and soft skills relevant to success in the workplace through their participation DukeEngage.
Pre-Departure Skills Training
It is important to bear in mind that the purpose of the DukeEngage Academy is to provide pre-departure training to maximize safety, responsible behavior and to enrich a student’s experience in the field and not explicitly to train young laborers for the job market. Assessment of the Academy does not include measuring the acquisition or application of skills students are taught during this two-day event. Yet in skills and topical workshops during the Academy, students are mentored in time management, conflict resolution, intercultural competency, team building and self-care, as well as project management, grant writing and budgeting skills. They also learn about important leadership traits of empathy, humility, moral courage, tolerance and introspection.
In a recent interview with Meredith Casper, Assistant Director for Training and Student Development for DukeEngage, I learned something about how she and her colleagues determine the curriculum for their annual training Academy. An advocate of peer mentoring, Meredith relies on DukeEngage graduates to lead panel discussions and participate in skills and topical sessions along with faculty and staff mentors from across campus. Her curriculum emphasizes participatory learning in which students take part in simulation games, like BARNGA, and live polling during the Academy. She and her colleagues have also developed online modules to reinforce the lessons learned at the Academy.
Herself a former Peace-Corp volunteer, Meredith knows something about the skills and character traits that one can develop by participating in an immersive service experience. She and her colleagues at DukeEngage have gleaned the content of the pre-departure training programs not only of the Peace Corps, but City Year’s Basic Training Academy and AmeriCorps’ Pre-Service Orientation as they developed DukeEngage’s Academy. She annually surveys returning students, project leaders and community partners from DukeEngage for their ideas and recommendations about new skills and topical training modules and even surveys the new cohort of outgoing students before they leave to get a sense of what they think they need to know and/or relevant skills they already have. This year, in response to their feedback, Meredith added sessions on mindfulness, ethical representation, grant-writing and cooking on a budget to the Academy’s roster of training sessions.
Teamwork in the Field
Each year DukeEngage also surveys students immediately after they return from their DukeEngage experience and then again six months later. One question the survey asks is about the teamwork development skills that students believe they gained as a result of their eight-week volunteer service. Teamwork is ranked as one of the top three most important skills for the workforce by the United States Department of Labor as part of their “Soft Skills to Pay the Bills—Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success” curriculum. According to DukeEngage surveys conducted in 2012, a majority of the 435 students who participated in a summer experience reported that it not only gave them an opportunity to work as a team but also to develop their collaborative skills through this engagement. Not surprisingly, many of the students surveyed also reported that they acquired other important workplace skills through these immersive service experiences including leadership, negotiation, inter-cultural competency, empathetic listening and group advocacy. Without a doubt, all of these skills are important to succeed in life as well as in the workplace.
 DukeEngage conducts two surveys on returning students each year: one immediately following their “re-entry” to campus and one six-months later. Survey data provided by Jacki Purtell, Assistant Director for Assessment and Evaluation at DukeEngage.