DukeEngage: Music as a Shared Language

Leta Hallowell left home in May with a suitcase, a French pocket dictionary, and five ukuleles. These were the tools the rising Duke junior had assembled in preparation for her independent DukeEngage project in Africa.

When she boarded her plane en route to Libreville, Gabon, Leta was as prepared as she could be to spend two months engaged in service work on an unfamiliar continent. She had previous travel experience and was excited to observe a new Francophone culture; she had two years of courses in French and international comparative studies under her belt; and she had a detailed itinerary to guide her in extending her education not just outside the classroom, but across the world.

But Leta said the most challenging and rewarding parts of her project were the ones that happened “almost by accident.”

Although she had long planned to be among the more than 425 Duke students participating in DukeEngage this summer, she imagined herself joining the program as part of a group of English-speaking peers. She began to diverge from that plan when her French professor and faculty mentor, Deborah Reisinger, suggested she consider an independent project.

With additional guidance from Connie Clark, a Duke researcher with extensive experience working in Gabon, Leta came up with a plan: she would visit a French-speaking country to improve her French language skills, and she would share her passion for music with children at Association Arc-en-Ciel. Leta intended to work with young girls at the association's Centre Espoir (Hope Center), a facility providing shelter and informal education to street children at risk for exploitation and violence. Upon her arrival in Libreville, though, she learned there was greater need for her work at Centre Arc-en-Ciel (Rainbow Center), the association's center for boys in need.

“We had this plan that I felt like I really knew,” Leta said, “but once I got there I had to kind of start over.” The change in her service project was an adjustment that reflected the challenges and learning experiences of finding her feet in a new culture, a process for which she offered the advice “roll with it.”

It was a lesson she learned throughout her DukeEngage experience. From her arrival, Leta was immersed in life outside her comfort zone. Libreville’s proximity to the equator put her in a tropical climate very unlike her hometown of North Haven, Maine. Local restaurants served fried banana and cassava-based dishes, and at the Gabonese markets, Leta often drew attention as the only white-skinned person in sight.

“I definitely had to make some adjustments,” Leta said, singling out her fear of navigating a foreign culture alone, “but that’s why I went, because I wanted to experience a different culture. You just have to integrate yourself and find ways to make yourself happy in a place where you don’t know anybody.”

Two months still seemed like a long time to be removed from the familiarity of home, but Leta soon learned that Centre Arc-en-Ciel is, in many ways, a home. For the group of boys ages 10-20 who reside or spend their days at the center, it provides an escape from the poverty and homelessness that plague Libreville, a city facing extreme income inequality. Over 50 boys take advantage of the organization's resources, and eight to ten live at the center full time.

The center became a second home for Leta, too. After two weeks of observation and informal bonding time, she began organizing classes and activities for the boys. She taught arts and crafts, English language classes and, of course, music. “My goal was to be a mentor and an educator to them,” she said, “and a more tangible goal was to give them a new skill, which would be to learn the ukulele.” She began by teaching them chords so they could create their own songs. By the end of her time in Libreville, she was teaching the boys to play French children’s songs like “Frère Jacque” and “Alouette.”

The boys weren’t the only ones to learn new skills from Leta’s classes. Though she does not consider herself fluent in French, Leta said communicating with the boys at the center helped her improve the skills she has gained as a French major at Duke. “I’m getting better by having the confidence in myself to make mistakes and just do my best and go for it,” she said.

By the time her project came to an end, the two months that had seemed so long now felt like not enough time to fully integrate herself into Gabonese culture. Thus, Leta has already begun planning a trip back to Libreville, hoping to continue her service work next summer. This time, she said, she will feel confident in her independent travels. “Going by myself has made me feel really self-reliant,” she said. “If I want to go travel somewhere, I have the skills and capability to do that.”

Leta is taking advantage of those new skills now, spending her fall semester in Paris through the Global Education Office for Undergraduates. She plans to use her time abroad to further improve her French and to compare the two French-speaking cultures she has had the opportunity to observe. Her DukeEngage experience has also inspired her to continue traveling and incorporating service work into her life after she graduates.

The first of two DukeEngage Weeks begins October 20, providing Duke students an opportunity to explore their options for DukeEngage programs and independent projects. Leta encourages her classmates to seriously consider DukeEngage. “Don’t do it just to say you’ve done some service work,” she said. “Really think about what you will get from it and what you will be able to give to the population you’ll be working with.”

Having followed those guidelines herself, Leta left Gabon transformed. “I was unsure of myself going into it,” she said, “but I feel really lucky to have done it. I’m very grateful to DukeEngage and to Duke for allowing me to have that opportunity.”

About DukeEngage

DukeEngage provides full funding for select Duke undergraduates who wish to pursue an immersive summer of service in partnership with a U.S. or international community. Students interested in participating can learn more about eligibility and the application process on the DukeEngage website.