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The Power of Students to Improve the World

May 11, 2013

I'm in Durham, North Carolina this weekend getting ready to address the class of 2013 tomorrow at my alma mater Duke University. My time at Duke was so special to me and no matter how much time passes, I always feel connected to the community I was a part of during my years there.

Through my studies at Duke, and later my work at the foundation, I’ve had the opportunity to travel and meet different people from around the world. These experiences have changed me and how I see the world. I want to help make similar life-changing experiences part of the excellent education Duke provides and hopefully, inspire young people to give of their time, energy, and resources in the areas where people need it most.

Earlier today I had the chance to meet with students enrolled in the University Scholars Program and the DukeEngage global civic engagement program. Each summer, DukeEngage fully funds and supports immersive service experiences for more than 400 Duke students in partner communities worldwide. Later this summer, DukeEngage students will be placed in more than 35 countries all over the world. 

It was great to listen to them talk about their experiences and their enthusiasm to apply what they have learned during their studies because as one student put it: “Once you’ve seen it, you need to do something about it”.

I fundamentally believe in the power of young people today to connect deeply to others – both here and far away – and in doing so, be motivated to make the world a better place. The compassion, energy, and creativity I see students and young leaders showing every day never ceases to amaze and inspire me (and keep me on my toes!).

Below are a few reflections shared by the students after our chat today.  

Hearing them talk about how their experience abroad, as well as here in the US, impacted them and changed their worldview, you could see a spark coming alive.

I truly hope they are able to take that spark, keep it alight, and come back to it throughout their life.

“My introduction to civic engagement through the DukeEngage program in Tucson, Arizona greatly influenced the rest of my undergraduate career and fueled my desire to pursue a future career in public service with a law degree. After so largely shaping my life in a great many ways, the program provided me the awe-inspiring opportunity to meet with Melinda Gates today during her visit to Duke University, where she set aside time to meet with a dozen former DukeEngage participants. During our hour together we discussed Melinda Gates’ own civic engagement endeavors, her motivations for becoming involved in service and her desire to provide the tools for underserved communities to pull themselves up onto an equal playing field. Throughout our meeting, I thought back to my own experiences working with migrants in Tucson in which I grew frustrated that human rights appeared to be allocated contingent upon a person’s birthplace or economic standing, yet encouraged by the program and by this discussion that we students could help grant agency to the issues through the attention we can draw within our unique fields. Our conversation reinforced my initial motivations to continue civic engagement well past college and use the connections and tools I gained from DukeEngage to tackle societal problems at home and abroad.  I truly valued the opportunity to engage in conversation about issues of great global importance with one of the world’s most engaged civic leaders on one of my last days on Duke’s campus, and I am immeasurably grateful for DukeEngage’s existence thanks to the generous donation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.” -Saher Valiani '13 

"’Life is a learning journey.’ These are the words that stay with me after hearing Melinda Gates discuss her path to philanthropy this morning. Like most of the students who were in the room, I have thought about my own path to service in great depth, carefully considering where I can best use what I have been given to serve others. Melinda took great care in each comment she made this morning, and spent much more time actively listening to our stories before sharing her own. I think this reflects well the idea of living out the learning journey. For Melinda Gates this journey has taken her all over the world to observe and act upon instances of people in need from all walks of life. She expressed that two questions — "What if it were me in their place?" and "How can I use my voice?"  — have been strong guides to motivate her to continue, but it is through learning that she has begun to find some answers. Her display of knowledge in several areas, from global health to education policy to economic development, are a testament to where this learning journey can begin to lead you, and certainly where it has led Melinda Gates in some scenarios. The other piece, however, is the intangible knowledge that grows us as people and helps us to see from new perspectives. What has been found with the DukeEngage program is that a humbling experience can have a lifetime effect on the one who takes it in and learns from it. What is encouraging is that the story of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation started in this same manner. This is where change in the world seems to be occurring at its best - when learning is involved.” -Andrew Rotolo '14

“Today I had the unique opportunity to share my DukeEngage story and its continued impact on my academic, professional, and personal aspirations with my fellow classmates and Mrs. Melinda Gates. Listening to the stories of some of the most passionate students I have ever met, in addition to those of my long-time role model Mrs. Gates, was truly transformative and inspiring. As a group, we discussed the issues that really hit close to home for me: merging the fields of global health and international development, bridging global experiences with domestic interests, and finding a way to address global diseases in an interdisciplinary way. As a student volunteer, this conversation has reignited the flame that was lit initially during DukeEngage by challenging me to give more thought to the ways in which the interconnected nature of health and social inequality might be addressed.  

“As a Global Mental Health major, this conversation has reaffirmed my interest in the highly under-researched and under-addressed area of mental health in developing nations. As the founder of an organization called the Malaria Awareness Program, this conversation has inspired me to further our mission to merge community-driven education with a locally-run social enterprise in rural South Africa. I am excited to continue to reflect on this experience as I finish my studies at Duke and find my way in the professional world. I will be traveling to South Africa next week to continue my work with the Malaria Awareness Program, and I could not be more excited to extend today’s conversation with those whom I meet in the coming weeks in a meaningful way.” -Katie Guidera '14

“What does it mean to really engage? And what is "civic engagement"? Often I encapsulate engagement in my switch from biomedical engineering to political science, or from the science lab to social justice following my DukeEngage experience. But Melinda Gates challenged that notion, and pushed me to rethink what real engagement looks like. As she described her first and subsequent visits to Africa, Melinda Gates asked us to consider the question: "What if it were me?" It was then that all 12 of us DukeEngage participants realized this was the question that connected all of our individual experiences. Though my post-DukeEngage reflection process has been a long one, her question helped me realize that passion and calling arise when you let an experience fully permeate your being. Don't lose the seed that DukeEngage has embedded in you, she said. Some of you will end up in the Peace Corps and others will end up on Wall Street in the next couple of years. You may not act upon what you learned immediately, but come back to it when you're ready. 

Throughout our hour of conversation, Melinda Gates also reiterated the notion that in order to create a more horizontal playing field and bring the world together, we must bring different fields together. Mrs. Gates really embodied this interdisciplinary spirit, connecting her expertise in global health and philanthropy with deep knowledge beyond those fields, and demonstrating the great potential we have to change our world when disciplinary walls are dissolved. Until now I've envisioned my pre-DukeEngage and post-DukeEngage lives as separate entities, but meeting Melinda Gates helped me realize that passions are not uni-disciplinary and that nothing is truly mutually exclusive. I can wield my math and science skills, combine them with my knowledge of culture and politics, and even team with movers and shakers in other places as a force for good. I'm not sure what this means for my future experiences and endeavors, but I know this much: the transformative experience that DukeEngage provides carries real breadth and depth, its impacts both quantitative and qualitative. The program has sent 2,400 students to the corners of the earth in 75 countries to date, but as Albert Einstein put it, "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted." Hopefully soon, we'll have both the stories and the numbers to know that our world is moving in a better direction.” -Ray Liu '15

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