Page 1

Duke Civic Engagement Magazine Spring 2010 Issue 3


Spring 2010 Synergy 2

Synergy Team Editors-in-Chief

Kirsty Fang Olivia He Suanna Oh


Serra Aktan Zeewan Lee Brandon Maffei Pulkit Taunk Sarah Philips

Design Kirsty Fang Olivia He Publishing Chamblee Graphics Advisor

Eric Van Danen Special thanks to Bassett Fund for its financial support and for believing in our mission.

From the Editors It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.    - Ralph Waldo Emerson  The third issue of SYNERGY seems to exhibit an ornate pattern created with multi-shaded question marks. The writers who have shared their personal stories through this issue collectively ask many more questions and reflect much more critically than those we have seen before. They question the effectiveness of their programs; whether their plans were well organized, their money was efficiently spent, or their feedback was reflected in improving the programs. These volunteers also question the impact on the people whom they have left behind; whether they made a lasting difference after all, or whether their loving gestures would only be painfully missed later. Reading over their questions that we could not answer, we felt the weight of responsibility that must have pressed on these volunteers while they kept up their smile during their work. Perhaps working with so much questions weighing on their shoulders for an extended period of time has made them carry some load back home. We are glad to share their questions here, not because it is going to lighten the load in their minds, but because it may later remind them to find answers to the questions they once asked. This semester, we were surprised to receive many pleasant words of support from the strangers who have enjoyed reading SYNERGY. Their encouraging words as well as the occasional sight of Duke students’ perusing our magazine on campus make us sincerely enjoy our time spent on this magazine. We would also like to welcome our two new freshmen members who joined us this semester. It is a relief to know that there will be younger, cuter and funnier people to carry on SYNERGY’s mission when we are off to the real world. Happy reading! Kirsty Fang, Olivia He, and Suanna Oh Editors-in-Chief

SPRING 2010 Synergy 3



Vietnam Kendra Hinton


Emily K Center, Durham Joan Soskin


Togo Serra Aktan


Argentina & Costa Rica Kelen Laine


Honduras Lydia Chow (DGMB)


Russia Zeewan Lee


Genesis Home, Durham Albert Karcher (APO)

Spring 2010 Synergy 4

Kendra Hinton Vietnam Southeast Asia Feature Story

SPRING 2010 Synergy 5



f all the grand visions I had of civic engagement in Vietnam, having a thirteen year old girl give me the most perfect manicure I have ever had certainly was not among them. I remember the first day of riding to Little Rose Shelter, a shelter for girls in Ho Chi Minh City who are victims of sexual abuse. Another Duke student, two Vietnamese students, and I crammed ourselves into a cab. The shelter was in the outskirts of the city, and we got extremely lost, so I had a chance to observe the city. As we drove along, motorcycles, the preferred method of transport, whizzed by us on both sides. I witnessed such marvels as a man defying gravity by carrying a full sized mattress on his motorcycle. After many wrong turns, we finally reached the shelter, an unimposing gated building at the end of an ally. The shelter itself was not anything I had ever imagined. For one, many the girls were busy at work in the kitchen chopping, frying, peeling you name it. The girls at the shelter are trained to be self-sufficient. We learned that, though these girls receive some education, the primary goal is to provide them with vocational training. To support this goal, the shelter is equipped with a sewing room as well as a “beauty salon” room in which the girls learn to paint nails, fix hair, etc.

One might wish for these girls to strive for a higher level of education. In the western world, this is the narrow definition of success with which we are most comfortable. Anyone with volunteer experience has used phrases such as “reach for the stars” and “be all you can be” as synonymous to, earn the highest level of education you possibly can. Yet, perhaps it is a more realistic to teach these girls profitable skills to discourage turning to harmful trades such prostitution. Such questions require us to reexamine philosophies that have been ingrained in us through life in the U.S. As I spent more time at the center, I began to reflect upon our potential to create positive change. The aspiring psychologist in me wanted to reach out to these traumatized girls---Many weren’t even able to make eye contact. Yet, I knew that I did not have the qualifications to help these girls in the way that I wished to. Furthermore, the Vietnamese conception of time constantly worked against our ability to enact positive change. It was not uncommon for us to, after the hour journey, arrive at the center to find that the girls had a previous engagement. Or that the girls were sleeping. Or that they were busy doing homework. When we did have a chance to interact with the girls, it was

Spring 2010 Synergy 6

often frustrating. My Vietnamese roommate wisely articulated the challenges of our presence at the center. She explained that the girls were hesitant to interact with us because it is common for foreigners to come for a brief time, do very little, and leave. Not forming a relationship is a coping mechanism--why establish a relationship when you know you will be abandoned? I began question the validity of our presence. Previously, I had considered the possibility that our presence might not be entirely helpful. However, this led me to question whether or not our presence could be harmful. How would I sketch a picture of our 5 weeks at the shelter? Sometimes the girls were deeply engaged in our activities, and sometimes they would slip away, one by one, until I was left coloring with one girl from the shelter and two of my peers. We taught them a little self-defense, played games, and ran an aerobics class. We created song sheets and taught such classics as, “twinkle twinkle little star” and “row row your boat”. The girls loved this, and it helped them practice their English. A particularly embarrassing memory is when the girls insisted that I sing “I’m a little teapot” hand gestures and all, whilst 15 pairs of eyes bored into me. Needless to say, my performance would not win me a Grammy anytime soon. Another activity the girls enjoyed was when we took pictures of them, printed them out, and let them keep copies. Having a physical copy of themselves was a novelty in such a way that westerners would find hard to believe. At first they were shy to pose for the pictures, but by the end they were all clamoring to ham it up in front of the camera.

SPRING 2010 Synergy 7

I learned another valuable lesson: always question your information. Initially we communicated with the directors of our center through the translation of our roommates. A few weeks in, it was revealed that these women did speak some basic English. They were simply too embarrassed to use it. Thus, we arranged to spend some mornings teaching English to the staff. So began many interesting conversations with these women about life, politics, love, you name it. From the attractiveness of Obama, to the invasion of western food in Vietnam, these conversations were truly engaging. Furthermore, after this shift in the definition of our relationship, the women’s attitudes towards us flipped completely. When we came to interact with the girls, the directors would gather them for us. This made a substantial difference in our ability to organize events and interact with the girls. One day the student director of our program announced that all of the volunteers were going to Little Rose Shelter for a presentation. Once we arrived we all sat down and the directors put a video into an old TV. As the movie started, I had to suppress an urge to giggle. The movie was a cartoon that was originally Spanish and had been dubbed poorly in English. As soon as the content became clear, all desire to laugh was snuffed out. This video described instances of sexual abuse such as of a young girl by her father and of a Hispanic boy by an older white man. Though the racial messages in this film were horrifying, the reactions of both our roommates and the center directors were worth the lapse in political correctness. The directors of the program believed these concepts should be entirely foreign to us, that we should be shocked by the content of these films --- and such was the case for our Vietnamese roommates. This session helped me realize that abuse, a topic of fairly common knowledge in the U.S., is entirely taboo and often not well understood in Vietnam. This realization reaffirmed the sensitive nature of our work at the shelter. I started this experience assuming that, because I was from a “civilized” western nation, I could help a community improve their way of doing things. Yet, I ultimately learned that we didnít understand the situation in the country well enough to dictate changes in the system. It was more important to keep an open mind and not have rigid expectations for what to accomplish during the experience. In the future perhaps I can return to this shelter, equipped with more language skills, cultural comprehension, and clinical skills, in order to make more of a lasting impact.

Spring 2010 Synergy 8

Mo Cày


fter four weeks in the bustle of life in Ho Chi Minh City, the eight Duke students and our Vietnamese roommates were on our way to a tiny town in the Mekong delta. In Ho Chi Minh City, to cross the street you had to wade through a sea of motorcycles putting your trust in the awareness of nameless drivers to get you safely across the road. The pace of life in the delta was on the opposite end of the spectrum. To ride to work we hopped on our bikes and headed down the road with oxen and chickens perplexedly watching our progress. We wound our way over rickety bridges and narrow paths flanked by towering coconut trees. In the delta we were part of a campaign known as the “Youth League Green Summer Campaign” --- a government run campaign, which is a movement of Vietnamese youth volunteering throughout the country. Before heading out to our various destinations everyone gathered together, each and every person decked out in a matching blue shirt and green hat. Embedded in my memory from this event is a sea of blue shirts, patriotic

tunes, and a million cameras flashed in the direction of the white people. In many ways, my time in Mo Cày was more fulfilling, for we created a tangible change. We left behind a refinished school, a house, and a new road. Not to mention that I learned how to make cement. What was most striking during this project was the community spirit. Everyday as we whizzed down the narrow concrete path into the schoolyard we were greeted with the bouncing enthusiasm of local children. These children were glad to see we were fixing up the school, and wanted to contribute. Of course the focus of small children is often less than consistent. One of my most vivid memories is of building a mud path around the edge of the school. In the end, we all pulled off our shoes, ran around in the mud, and essentially had an all out mud battle. I even had a short language lesson during this battle — the words clean (sach) and dirty (dơ) figured prominently. We probably should have considered the possibility of burrowing maggots. Oh well, I think it was worth it. During the afternoon we ran a summer camp for the local children, many of whom are left to fend for themselves during the summer. I helped to teach a health/p.e. class. During the health class we taught nutrition, hygiene, and self-defense. Standing in front of class of 30 children who are ready and excited to learn whatever you wish to teach them is rather pressure filled. In this context I experienced my first instance of censorship. The local “people’s committee” had to approve our curriculum. This committee was not overly thrilled with my attempt to teach 13 year olds about STDs, HIV, and safe sex. If nothing else, under my censored curriculum I helped rid a few children of their belief that rice is a vegetable. During the p.e. portion of our class, we tried to encourage physical activity. Unfortunately, the week of torrential rain didn’t help. Yet, when were able to take the children outside, they loved running around and playing the bizarre games we suggested (red rover was quite the hit). In this context, I realized the universal nature of play is. Despite our language barrier, we could all play soccer together and communicate our joy to one another. The locals were also exceedingly generous. Though they had little, they were grateful for our help and tried to repay us anyway they could. They brought us into their homes and their hearts. While we worked on the road, the locals concocted a tasty sweet soup for us each day (a Vietnamese dessert that is generally coconut milk based and has delectable bites in it such as tapioca and bananas). Anticipation of this dessert is what often what got me through carrying an endless stream of rock-filled bags on my back. One of the contractors even invited us cook

SPRING 2010 Synergy 9

and eat bánh xèo at his house--a giant bright yellow pancake filled with seafood that is a Vietnamese specialty. Though these treats were tasty, a tinge of guilt always colored my consumption, for I knew that we were taking away resources from those who had few. Yet, we were contributing time and money to their village, and for their pride they needed to reciprocate in some manner. The children will also remain prominent in my memory--their enthusiasm and uplifted spirits will stay in my heart and mind. I learned that sometimes the most important moments are the ordinary ones. Everyday in between our early mornings of manual labor (we rose before the roosters at 530) and our afternoons of teaching we had a break. After an exhausting morning of carting heavy bags of cement under the hot sun all we wanted to do was take a nap or dazedly caffeinate at the local café. Yet, the local children began to establish a tradition. They knew that we frequented the local café, and they would spend this time with us. Interacting with them was often challenging given that most of us lacked sufficient language skills. Yet, we were able to communicate with only a few words. In these moments I felt like I truly connected with the children. My notebooks are filled with drawings they did for us-drawing I will always treasure. Before we left, one child gave each of us a small canister filled with paper stars and glitter with a label saying “good lucky” on the outside of the canister. One activity that greatly amused these children was picking colorful and fragrant local flowers and placing them in all of our hair. Almost anyone looks elegant with one flower in his or her hair, but when you have upwards of 15 flowers (which for sure happened to me once ... I counted!) the effect tends to be more ridiculous than elegant. At the end of the day, the children

would follow us on their bikes as we began our ride home. I would ride home with piles of flowers in my bicycle basket and flowers streaming out of my hair into the wind. Back at our hotel I would gather up these precious tokens and press them between the pages of my journal so as not to forget these wonderful children. When I reflect upon my experience in Ho Chi Minh City and in Mo Cày, a string of questions always runs in a loop in my head. Was the cost of our participation worth the change that we enacted? Would the money have been better spent as a lump sum sent to the community? Is the impact we made on the people worth the pain of our separation? Do we teach these children to aim for something they can never achieve? Did we show our roommates a way of life that few of them will ever attain? These are questions that I can only begin to try and answer. For one, our presence there is what motivated Duke to donate the money. Furthermore, we were on site to ensure that the money was spent in the manner that was proposed. I also like to think that beyond the concrete changes such as the road we built we also left a somewhat more personal imprint --- that as the children ride down the road they will think of our time together in a positive light. Also, western-oriented as it may be, I like to think that the program makes an impact on its Duke participants. This experience has deeply affected me, and I hope to use it in the future. In fact, I’m contemplating applying for funding after graduation to return to the same shelter and make more of a positive change. If the program can inspire Duke students to promote change in their futures, then perhaps it’s worth it. To make a pop culture reference, the web of our actions’ impact is hard to analyze, you just never know which strand will save the cheerleader and save world. •

Spring 2010 Synergy 10

Joan Soskin Emily K Center Durham

I arrived late (as always) to the Emily K Center on Monday, and sat down on a too-small red plastic chair at the table in the back of the classroom with group 2/3a. Kim, the lead tutor, informed me that today I would work with Vanessa. I let out a long internal groan, hoping that my disappointment hid behind the mask of excitement I put on for the student’s sake. Last time I was assigned to Vanessa, I spent half the lesson convincing her that I was not in love with my co-tutor, a pre-pubescent high school boy whose discomfort with the situation increased exponentially by the second. No methods of distraction or lecturing about the inappropriate nature of the conversation could get her to cease, and I left the center with a haranguing headache. But usually a sassy nine-year-old, today she was alarmingly nice. When our lead tutor, Kim*, asked why she was behaving so unusually well, Vanessa gave us a Cheshire Cat smile and returned to her work. Upon further prompting, she admitted that she had an ulterior motive: she was only being nice to us to receive stickers. “Dontcha think I should get two?” she asked, grin alighting on her dimpled cheeks. Vanessa unwittingly epitomizes the largest potential pitfall of the Emily K Center’s Sticker System, the means by which the center attempts to motivate its students to embody its Six Pillars (Heart, High Expectations, Hard Work, Integrity, Honesty, and Respect) and the Dream-Do-Achieve model. Every day, the students are expected to “show their pillars,” and stickers are either given or withheld at the end of each two-hour session. It is a perfectly Pavlovian system in which the children receive positive reinforcement for menial exhibitions of these Pillars, hopefully instilling in them an understanding of methods of behavior that will lead to eventual success.

SPRING 2010 Synergy 11

Thinking back to our last interaction, it all made sense. We had engaged in a battle of wills at the end of the session regarding the number of stickers she deserved. In my opinion, she deserved no stickers whatsoever for her frustrating and stubborn performance. She, however, was horrified when the box marked “Hard Work” remained empty, challenging me to “prove [she] was bad.” We ended the session with her pouting, informing me that “Kim doesn’t take stickers away,” and finally giving up. At the Emily K Center, stickers mean applause, attention, and a toy; the loss of one sticker moves the student a precious step away from this coveted goal. And so, determined not to lose her chance to attain the positive reinforcement she wanted, Vanessa did her best impression of a goal-oriented and obedient student. According to the website, the overarching mission of the Emily K Center is to “inspire economically disadvantaged students to dream big, strive for excellence in school and life, build strong character, and reach their highest potential as our future generation of citizen leaders.” But Vanessa leaves me wondering: How effective is this system in instilling greater goals of success and achievement in its younger students? Is it possible that the short-term satisfaction of attention and a toy becomes what psychologist Ivan Pavlov refers to as a “nonconditioned reinforcer”, or a goal entirely separate from the mission of the organization itself? In no way do I mean to detract from the admirable goals and accomplishments of the Emily K Center. Watching the progress of the students in my group, both socially and intellectually, has been at times both amazing and inspiring. But at moments like those I experienced with Vanessa, the futility of inspiring such lofty goals as a college education in would-be first generation students is overwhelming. Emily K’s innovative system attempts to link day-to-day behaviors with the desired outcome of college matriculation, but its long-term efficacy has yet to be tested, as its oldest pupils are not yet in high school. The program’s dedication to its students leaves me hopeful: through a trial and error process, I hope that the center can work out the kinks and avoid an empty system of nonconditioned reinforcement and actions motivated by the promise of prizes and applause. Through continually bettering their system, the Center will have an improved chance of encouraging these academically at-risk children to Dream, Do, and Achieve their way from Kindergarten to College. •

Spring 2010 Synergy 12

Serra Aktan Togo West Africa


omeone recently asked me if I did anything crazy during my eight week Duke Global Health Institute Project in Togo during the summer of 2009. “You know, any run-ins with wild animals or anything?” I scrambled to think of a good story to satisfy my audience, but could not think of one concise story that stood out. The truth is, I told my friend, everything I did everyday was crazy. My project consisted of working full time in a government clinic in Lome (the capital city), as well as administering a survey about HIV/AIDS stigmatization in the hopes of improving HIV/AIDS counseling efforts and elucidating the reasons behind AIDS stigmatization. This work had me helping to deliver babies, looking for malaria parasites in blood samples, witnessing the effects of rare diseases, and interviewing patients and healthcare workers on a daily basis. In my life outside of my work, my days were smattered with male initiation ceremonies, Charismatic Christian weddings, marriage proposals, climbing mountains, trying exotic foods, and learning new languages. In fact, my life in Togo was so different than anything that I’ve ever experienced, it’s something I can’t help but think about every day. Almost any small reminder of my time in Togo brings back vivid memories, and shapes my present decisions and actions.

SPRING 2010 Synergy 13

One such memory of Togo can be instigated with the simple search for a pen, which as a student, happens quite a lot in my everyday life. While working in the maternity department, one of my duties was to help illiterate women fill out their medical history forms. For this job I needed a pen to write down the information that the women told me. This sounds like no big deal, but turned into a huge source of stress and frustration for me every day. Every day I worked in maternity I spent at least a half hour searching for a pen to use for the day. Everyone at the clinic who needed a pen had only one, and coming across an extra pen to borrow was unimaginably difficult, a ridiculous hurdle for me to jump every day. Some days, if I could not find a pen, I would have to take turns with the nurses which cut our productivity in half and caused the line of pregnant women to grow past the maternity section and into the hall. Even worse, I one day gave in and just decided to go buy a pen to use for work. After searching for an hour, I couldn’t even find a pen to buy. To me, who has lived in the US all of my life, this is a problem that is completely out of my ordinary life as well as imagination. This experience was so frustrating that to this day, I swear that

the thought of searching for a pen quickens my pulse and instills an instinctive sense of dread in me. The experience also has truly taught me that, although this may sound cliché, I take so many things in my life for granted and that there are so many others who cannot. Many of the DukeEngagers or Global Health project participants that I have spoken to have a hard time putting the exact effects of their experience into words. Most will agree that it changed them, in some way or another, but cannot say exactly how. I believe part of this intangible, yet present effect that DukeEngage and similar projects have is based off the sheer craziness of the experience. There are some aspects of the project that are bound to be way out of most Duke students’ normal way of life and past experiences that subtle reminders in everyday life will spark physical reactions and recollection of memories. Because these experiences are so crazy compared to our normal lives, they will not easily be forgotten, and will most likely affect us the rest of our lives. When I’m eighty years old, I probably won’t remember most of my professor’s names and most of what they said, but I’m sure I’ll remember not to take simple household items, like pens, for granted. •

Kelen Laine Photo Essay


nstead of going straight to college after high school, I decided instead to take a gap year to live, volunteer, and travel. Through an organization called Projects Abroad, I went first to Liberia, Costa Rica for three months in the fall, and C贸rdoba, Argentina for four months in the spring. In each place, I lived with a local host-family, had a daily service-work job, and had the opportunity to take a few weeks to travel and explore the surrounding areas.

Argentina South America

SPRING 2010 Synergy 15

In CĂłrdoba, I volunteered daily at a “residenciaâ€? (a home for street children and abused children who have been legally separated from their households). I assisted in overall care of the kids, organized and taught various lessons, played with them, and basically served as an otherwise-missing positive adult relationship in their lives.

Costa Rica Central America

While living in Liberia, I had two jobs. The first was taking care of 3 to 6 year-old kids at a nearby daycare. Many parents in this area are single parents who struggle to earn a stable income, and thus their kids need an engaging caretaking center to spend the day while their parents work. My second job in Liberia was working to aid students at a special-needs school. I spent afternoons assisting the students with activities to encourage physical and mental development, for eventual integration into society as self-sufficient individuals. •

SPRING 2010 Synergy 17

Spring 2010 Synergy 18

Lydia Chow (dgmb) Honduras Central America Global Medical Brigades is an international network of more than 50 university clubs and volunteer organizations that provide communities in developing nations with sustainable health care solutions. Our current emphasis is in Honduras, where nearly 1,000 GMB volunteers travel annually to deliver services to our 40 communities. Our Duke chapter of Global Medical Brigades alone treated more than 3000 patients in four communities outside of Tegucigulpa in the past summer. Our group functioned like a mobile medical unit, setting up small temporary clinics to diagnose and treat patients at no cost. From in-take, to triage, to medical consultations, to filling the prescriptions, we experienced the many realms of the medical profession under the guidance of medical professionals.


have never been there, but it is so clear in my mind. Upon first landing, Honduras evokes little that one would expect when asked to picture a third-world country. Rows of signs advertising local chain restaurants and hotels greet incoming travelers next to the airport’s runway. Outside the airport, a brand new mall boasts neon signs of commercialized chains stores such as KFC and McDonalds. It is here at the capital, Tegucigalpa, that the effects of globalization are readily seen. After leaving the capital, however, the city begins to fade into the background of trees and vegetation. There are no paved roads, only dirt paths meandering deep into the mountainous rural areas. At least – that’s what I’ve been told. Before I entered Duke University, Honduras was the tiniest of blips on my radar. Having paid minimal attention to my high school World Cultures teacher as she confused terms such as “loess” with “lotus,” I could gesture vaguely at Central America if asked to pinpoint Honduras on a map. Yet as I speak to the members of Duke Global Medical Brigades (DGMB), they give me something far more than a point on a map. They give me a story – a multi-faceted origami constructed from pieces of each personal memory and experience – which I can hardly do justice to as I attempt to capture a summer into words. Last August, Duke Global Medical Brigades, a chapter of the national non-profit organization Global Brigades, raised approximately 230,000 dollars in medicines and supplies and, with the help of three volunteer physicians, traveled to Honduras to serve underprivileged communities. During the weeklong brigade, the team traveled to what has been identified by Global

SPRING 2010 Synergy 19

Brigades as the poorest and most desperate communities, which included El Guante, San Juansito Valle Angeles, Policia de Frontera, and Tulanga. The trip almost never happened. A powerful 7.3 earthquake in May had left fallen roads and other infrastructure problems strewn aside in neglect, and the aftermath of the earthquake was not the only disturbance with a visible impact on Honduras. The brigade arrived in Honduras on August 8, nearly five weeks after the presidential coup d’état on June 28. “The day of my flight, air control in Honduras suddenly decided to close all flights,” DGMB secretary Dilip Nagarkar said. “The flight didn’t take off for two hours. We ended up taking off without clearance. The pilot said, ‘We’re going to let the governments talk and sort this out and then see what happens.’ It wasn’t until later that they finally cleared us for landing.” The team set up a temporary clinic at a new village each day, offering free medical attention and prescription medicines to the hundreds of Hondurans who lined up overnight for hours seeking help. The majority of patients were women and children. Many of the patients faced nutritional problems stemming from a diet consisting predominantly of carbohydrates, beans, and meat and lacking in fruits and vegetables. In addition, a significant number of patients would drink carbonated beverages in place of water, which was not clean to drink.

Occasionally, the clinic came across more visually gruesome cases; one in particular was a woman who had fallen while walking down a hill near her village. The enormous wound on her leg was caked in layers of dirt and flesh, looking almost as if the pink, puckered skin had been corroded by acid. Fearing her leg would have to be amputated, the woman had not sought medical attention since the accident in February. By the time she arrived at the clinic, her rotting leg, as Nagarkar recalls, was “probably the scariest and weirdest thing I’ve seen in person – and not on TV.” To Alice Mao, one of the brigade’s sustainability committee cochairs, the woman’s pain was all too visible and all too painful to watch even as a bystander. “By the time I had heard about her, we had already finished with our brigade for the day,” Mao said. “She was the only patient who needed to be seen. Her family was there to support her. She kept grimacing and holding on to our translator. A group gathered around her. There were tears in not only her eyes, but also in the eyes of our own group members.” At the end of the day, Dr. Chen, the family doctor who traveled with the brigade, sat her outside the building and removed layer by layer of flesh with saltwater and iodine. By the end of 20 minutes, the wound

Spring 2010 Synergy 20

was finally clean. After he bandaged her wounds, Dr. Chen talked to her and told her that she had to go to the regional hospital. He said if she waited any longer, they would really have to amputate the leg. On certain days, the team deviated from the usual routine of clinic work. One day, they held a brigade at the national police headquarters. Instead of the typical ailments found in the villages, the team encountered soldiers with a broad range of injuries, both physical and mental. A large number of soldiers suffered psychological problems, as mental and psychological problems are often overlooked in third world countries. One patient, who had suffered a machete to the head, was left with a crater in his head and a scarred gash to the hand. The soldier had lain in a field for two days; he had been fortunate enough to obtain radio contact and call for help. In another case, a girl who had been using a machete to cut down trees had hacked her hand at an angle that narrowly avoided causing her to lose all motion in her hand. For some, one of the most eye-opening experiences was seeing 19 and 20 year-old women with three or five children. In Honduras, being 28-year-old is considered old, as opposed to in the United States where 28 is the age when a woman would typically start having kids. “Our on-the-ground guide told us that men would impregnate women as a sign of masculinity,” said Mao. “During a certain season, they’d travel into the mountains and while they’re there, they have other women. When the men come back down at the end of the season, they have to get their wives pregnant. If they don’t, then they’re not seen as masculine. It’s very strange for me to see young mothers who are around the same age as me, honestly. But as an outsider, I can’t really judge. It’s hard to understand a culture unless you’ve been there for a long time.” Though the brigade successfully offered medical attention and supplies to Honduran villages

in the course of a week, members of the team recognized the limitations of their weeklong visit. “I think if you look things in terms of community development, there’s not much you can change with just a one week visit,” Mao said. “There are so many things involved in creating a sustainable model. It’s not just Medical Brigades – you need all of the Global Brigades – Water Brigades, Environmental Brigades, etc. With so much poverty and lack of accessibility to resources, we really offer only a limited service.” Alex Chen, one of the co-chairs of the Public Health committee, also saw the limitations of the volunteer work in place. “Frankly, our impact as it stands right now is rather small,” Chen said. “We are able to obtain a massive amount of drugs and medicines, but they aren’t always what is needed. They aren’t always right. Or, if they are, we might not have enough. That’s the first concern. Second, we are treating the problem’s symptoms, not its causes. Granted, treating the causes is more difficult and time consuming, and already many groups, including Global Brigades, is trying to address the underlying issue of poverty, with varying degrees of success. We are trying to empower individuals to have more knowledge and skill to take care of their own health, but we are only the beginning. “It seems, unfortunately, that too much of the work being done now is dictated by Westerners. Not once do I think we asked the Hondurans what they needed. Did someone else ask them? I’m not sure. If we asked, would it have mattered? Maybe not. Perhaps they would have said something so that we would prescribe medicines, or something they thought we wanted to hear. I think that success in battling poverty will come when efforts are spearheaded by Hondurans (or the locals, in general). If they want our assistance, we will be happy to do so. In this manner, it seems our primary responsibility at the moment then is to help spur this movement.”

SPRING 2010 Synergy 21

And yet, there were uplifting things to reflect on as well. “In retrospect, I think it was definitely a good experience for looking at medicine, dealing with patients one on one, and seeing the injuries and how pharmacy works,” said Nagarkar. “I think in the United States, we believe we need a lot more things to live than we actually require. People are surviving in the most meager conditions and aren’t complaining – they’re poor and still happy. I think finally you realize that money isn’t necessarily happiness. Education isn’t necessarily happiness. And I think here in the States, they’ve ingrained in you that education and wealth brings you what you want in life.” Reflecting on her experiences, Mao agrees. “One of my fondest memories is of a beautiful little girl who had two sloppy pigtails. She wore a small donated pink shirt that had the word “happiness” printed on the front. While she was waiting in line with her mother she smiled at me with such a genuine and gorgeous smile that I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. Though her family was clearly not well off economically, as the ‘happiness’ shirt she wore even had holes in it, her smile reminded me that the work we were doing there in a small sense did bring them happiness.” This August, DGMB will make another trip down to Honduras. If all goes according to plan, I will finally set foot on the country my ignorant, high school self would not have been able to pinpoint on a map. I already know that no volunteering trip is perfect. I am no superhero, soaring in on the wingtips of glory ready to rid the world of its grime and crime, one bandaged wound at time. Just

how much of an impact I will be able to leave in a weeklong trip is questionable, especially when many of the issues stem from cultural perceptions that cannot be remolded overnight. In the wake of relief efforts towards overseas countries such as Haiti and Chile, some have questioned whether our resources would be better spent inwards toward our own country rather than outwards overseas. Yet, it feels as if thinking strictly in terms of “my country” versus “their country” propagates a mindset already vulnerable to ethnocentric condescension. As Chen said, “Health should be in the USA, Haiti, Honduras--it should be everywhere. The travesty is that it is not. Work abroad can be glamorous, but it should definitely not overshadow problems at home. People often forget one thing: while we may feel more akin to our fellow countrymen, we are ultimately all people, humans. We care for our citizens because they are people, and so too should we care for any person.” Yes, it will be very strange for me to realize that, had I been given an entirely different stack of cards, instead of textbooks I could be toting a child on each arm. But that does not make my culture any more “right” than theirs, nor does it give me the authority to judge a way of life I have never lived. I can listen to stories and read secondhand accounts, but they are no replacement for being a part of the culture firsthand. Likewise, I have already imagined it all in my head – the hills, the forests, the festering wounds – but they tell me no matter how much you prepare yourself beforehand, Honduras won’t be what you expected at all. •

Spring 2010 Synergy 22

Zeewan Lee


An interview with a former Duke-Engage participant


he interviewee participated in Duke Engage in St. Petersburg, Russia in the summer of 2008. The interviewee here talks about her thoughts on the Duke Engage program, including what sorts of improvements she thinks can be made. While the interviewee sincerely appreciates the opportunities she had gotten in St. Petersburg, she does make some constructive criticisms regarding the program. In providing you the readers of our magazine with the interview, I do not intend to drive you away from joining/ applying to Duke-Engage programs, especially to Duke Engage in St. Petersburg. The reason that I am leaving the interview in its original format is also to restrain from exerting my opinion regarding the Duke Engage. While trying my best to remain neutral, I strongly believe my interviewee’s comments - both the positive and negative aspects of the program that she mentions - regarding her Duke Engage experience are well worth your time and attention.

SPRING 2010 Synergy 23

Q. How did you get involved with the Duke Engage program? You have participated in a group project, and are group projects not hard for freshmen to be included into - especially when you were a freshman, because the Duke Engage programs just got started around then? “Well at least for mine, it was roll-in based. So if you applied early, you had a better chance of being accepted. And also, the coordinator of my program teaches FOCUS, and she taught in the FOCUS program I did in freshman year. ” [FOCUS title: Between Europe & Asia: Explorations in Culture, Law, and Cognitive Science]

Q. Did your Duke Engage end up being closely related back to what you learned in FOCUS? Given that you were interested enough in Eurasian culture/Russia to join the FOCUS, then I would assume that you would have a great time doing the Duke Engage in Russia. What did you think of the Duke Engage program? “Well, I’ll be honest with you. The primary reason that I applied was that I knew the professor who was running the program and also there weren’t a lot of [summer] opportunities for freshmen... so I thought Duke Engage was as good an opportunity as anything… to have everything paid and to be able to see the city in Russia, and to also do some community service work. Unfortunately I thought it [the program] was not well-organized in that we did not have welldefined projects to do. There were three options to do when I was there in Russia: working for the society of the blind (but to do this it was required that you knew how to speak Russian so this wasn’t my option), working in a hospital (which I was not really interested), and teaching English. Unfortunately, for the teaching English project, we did not have a lot of different opportunities…”

Q. What do you mean by your not having a lot of different opportunities? “Well, there were let’s say 6-7 of us [students from Duke] and about 3 kids that we were supposed to teach. So each of us the teachers did not get to have a lot of contact with the kids. And there were three parts in the teaching English project: one was teaching TOEFL, one was at a summer camp, and the last one which I think was the most rewarding one came towards the end of our stay which was teaching English at this program that was going on. During the last one, I taught conversational English, and kids I taught already had a pretty strong base in English and that was helpful because I did not have any Russian background… and the kids were able to talk to me and I could explain things to them…I taught grammar... such as conjunctions, which are really hard for Russian people. But anyway, what I thought very disorganized was that in the first job we had to do (TOEFL), on the first day the head of their language department told me that they only had the TOEFL program for a month, whereas we Duke Engage students were supposed to stay for two months and we were told beforehand that the program would last for the entire time of our stay. So we went to our professor in charge of the program and told her what we had heard from the head of the language department. Then our professor was like, ‘no, the program’s going to go on for two months.’ Apparently, the specifics of the projects were not communicated very well between the people in Russia and coordinators of the Duke Engage program at Duke. And after a month, the first program (TOEFL) ended, and then we had to pair up and go to a summer camp to teach English.”

Spring 2010 Synergy 24

Q. Did you all know that there were going to be three different “phases” of Duke Engage from the beginning - that is, when you were applying to the program back in your freshman year? “No.” ---

Q. How was that information conveyed to you? “Well, that is the part that surprised me. The people who supervised us in Russia told us first that we were going to be teaching TOEFL, but that it was only for a month. And then after, we were supposed to pair up and each pair was told to take turns and spend two weeks each in the summer camp teaching English. Not only were our duties in each of the phases shortlasting – too short for us to actually learn something out of the experiences – but also the duties we were given were a little vague.”

Q. Have you kept up with your Duke Engage program after you were done with it? Do you know if the program is running as it was when you did it? Or have there been some improvements? “I did keep up and saw how the program got changed/not changed. OK. This is the bigger program that I had. So I told you our Duke Engage students were divided into doing three different things in the beginning: to working for the society of the blind, working in a hospital, and teaching English. Students who went to work at the hospital came back from the program and told the rest of us that for a number of periods of their stay, they did not have any work to do at the hospital. What basically they were doing at the hospital was cleaning…walls/floors….Well, I mean ‘working at a hospital’ is a rather undefined concept, but then again, what the students who worked at the hospital hoped to do was creating some sort of a foundation on which the next generation of Duke Engage students could come and build on. Instead they were doing work that was not going to get done (not needed to be done) if they weren’t there. Later our mentor [a graduate student fluent in Russian who went with the Duke Engage group to guide/ help them] for the hospital option complained to our professor. You see, everyone who worked at the hospital including the mentor complained about how disorganized and pointless their project was. And what I was disappointed about [with respect to the hospital option] has to do with what happened after we returned from Russia. We the students in giving feedback to the Duke Engage program all told our professor that working at the hospital is really not a good option and should be taken out. Yet from what I understand at this point, the options from which the participants of this Duke Engage program can choose have been reduced in number, and the option of working at the hospital is still not taken out of the program. Overall, my Duke Engage experience ended up on a good note, because I found the last phase of my option (teaching English) rewarding and I could really connect with the kids I taught during the last phase. But the problem was that even though we all came back to Duke and told our professor/program coordinator that we all hated the hospital option, our feedback didn’t seem to be really reflected in improving the Duke Engage program.”

SPRING 2010 Synergy 25

Q. Doing two things concurrently sounds like more commitment on the participating students’ part. Do you think the change is beneficial for the Duke Engage program? “I do find the change reasonable and beneficial for the Duke Engage participants because if they are required to study in Russia before/while they participate in Duke Engage program in St. Petersburg, then they will have a better understanding of Russian culture and language and will be able to get more out of the Duke Engage program.”

Q: Do students applying to the Duke Engage this year know about what went on and what changes were made and not made to the program? Do current applicants get informed about these issues? Do students who are interested in the Duke Engage program you did get in touch with you (via email, etc.) asking about your experiences? “I don’t believe that the current applicants are aware of these issues. But I am not sure. And I have not had anyone emailing me and asking me about my Duke Engage experiences yet. Although our feedbacks were not taken into account in making changes to the Duke Engage program, what is interesting is that now in order for you to do the Duke Engage program in Russia you must do that in conjunction with doing a semester long program of Study Abroad in Russia (Duke in Russia). Basically this means you have to do Duke in Russia if you want to do Duke Engage in Russia. That’s the change that was made after we did the Duke Engage program.”

Q. I will ask you one last question. If you could change the program regardless of the allotted budget, etc., how would you change it, other than getting rid of the hospital option? “I do not know much about how working for the blind option turned out to be, but regarding my option of teaching English, I would pick a program there in which Duke students can be involved in and keep the students in that program for the entire two-month-period of their stay. That way the students can build lasting relationships with kids they teach and have enough time to learn from the experiences. What I hoped out of my Duke Engage experience was to build a foundation and build relationships with the community and people. Looking back I am not too sure if I achieved what I hoped to achieve through the experience. Also, we were at St. Petersburg for the Duke Engage and I am not sure if the place is the best place to have the Duke Engage program because St. Petersburg is a metropolitan city and it is the second richest city in Russia where kids living in the city does not really need much of our help in that they already have excellent teachers and a fairly good education. I believe there are other places in Russia where kids are in much more dire need of our help, and I wonder if the Duke Engage program can change its location.” •

Spring 2010 Synergy 26

Albert Karcher (apo) Genesis Home Durham


This passage describes my experience doing service at Genesis Home, as part of one of Alpha Phi Omega’s weekly service projects. Alpha Phi Omega is a coed, non-selective, nonresidential, service fraternity. Our fraternity’s motto is Leadership, Friendship, and Service. Our local chapter, Lambda Nu, has 50 brothers who participate in a variety of service projects each week. Throughout the week, projects include tutoring children and adults, working with the Boys and Girls Club, assisting women and children in transitional housing at Genesis Home, and much more. To find out more about the Alpha Phi Omega chapter at Duke visit our website at html or contact

could have gone abroad on Duke Engage. I could have taught English and tried to help people living in extreme poverty. I could have decided to use my energy raising funds to support orphans in countries torn by civil war. They would all have been worthy ways to spend my time. But there is something to be said for caring for those who sit just outside your doorstep. We pull up in the driveway of a respectable looking house in downtown Durham. The sky is a backlit orange, the last fading light of the day. I am a little nervous because it is my first time. Together with the other volunteers I walk up the concrete ramp to the porch. Through the window I see an adult sitting on the couch watching cartoons. The door opens, but at eye level it seems like it opened itself. Then I look down and see a little girl grinning sheepishly at us. Her mother appears and softly scolds her for opening the door, without permission. She beckons us down the wood paneled hallway into a sizeable room with tables and chairs. The walls are decorated with colorful posters of math equations, pictures of exotic locales and stick figure drawings of families. I hear giggling and loud footsteps. All of a sudden the room is full of animated kids, bouncing around the room, some eager to greet us, others hanging back hesitantly. I introduce myself to a boy who looks about eight years old. “Hi. What’s your name?” “Rodney”, he replies with a mischievous grin on his face. “Did you bring some homework today Rodney?” “Yeah! Can you help me?” He smiles eagerly. “Of course”. Rodney lives at Genesis Home an organization which provides housing for families and young people in Durham without homes. Every week I spend an hour helping Rodney with his homework in the hope that he will do better in school. In the long term I want to inspire him to motivate himself and value his education. Duke has dozens of student organizations and programs, which focus on helping children and people in developing countries. This is understandable because there is severe poverty in other countries and people in dire need. But I feel that Duke Students (myself included) sometimes lose sight of the problems that are sitting right in front of us. It is noble to go to Kenya to teach English, but what about the teenagers in Durham who can barely read a children’s picture book? Doing service is not like a math equation where an input has a defined outcome. My tutoring at the Genesis Home may not change Rodney’s life. But I feel good knowing that I have done my best to help someone in my community. It is a small world, but we should not lose sight of those in need who are right in front of us. •

SPRING 2010 Synergy 27

Introducing New Members

Editor: Pulkit Taunk Psychology Major Class of 2013

Editor: Sarah Philips Undecided Class of 2013

Editor: Brandon Maffei Public Policy Major Class of 2013

For comments, feedbacks, and submissions, email

SYNERGY 2010 Spring issue  

3rd issue of SYNERGY

SYNERGY 2010 Spring issue  

3rd issue of SYNERGY