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Doing His Civic Duty

Doing His Civic DutyIn his new role at Duke University, Tufts graduate Eric Mlyn is carrying the banner of civic engagement—with some inspiration from the Hill.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.16.07] Upon arriving at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill as an assistant professor of political science in the early 1990s, Tufts graduate Eric Mlyn took a profound interest in the education that his students were getting not just in the classroom, but outside of it as well.

Now Mlyn (A'83) will take that commitment to the next level as the director of DukeEngage, a new program to support students who get involved in service projects during the school year or summer. The program will officially launch next summer.

"I think that, when I was on faculty, the thing that inspired me the most was being able to provide experiences for undergrads that were life-changing, that were transformative," says Mlyn, who graduated with a degree in political science.

The projects span the globe and range from helping schoolchildren in Durham, N.C., appreciate art to providing HIV/AIDS education to youth in Africa to helping rebuild storm-ravaged New Orleans.

Mlyn says that DukeEngage, funded by two $15 million donations from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Duke Endowment, hopes to make these kinds of experiences available to students regardless of financial means by waiving summer earnings requirements for students who qualify.

"Overall, what we're coming to in American higher education is a recognition that universities have a responsibility to broader society," says Mlyn. "I think you see this move toward civic engagement as part of a broader trend to make universities more relevant to the political and economic challenges we have nationally and internationally."

In this respect, Mlyn regards his alma mater with particular fondness.

"I look with great admiration and pride at what Tufts is doing in this area," he says, citing the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service as a "national voice for undergraduate civic engagement" and a model for evaluating the success of such projects.

A Jumbo Influence

Mlyn-whose wife, Judy Byck, lived on his floor in Lewis Hall their freshman year-says his Tufts experience was extremely important in shaping his career path. He took an Explorations course on campaigns and elections through the Experimental College and later taught an Explorations course in politics. (He now sits on the Ex College's External Advisory Board.)

While at Tufts, Mlyn also studied military security with Paul Joseph and nuclear weapons policy with Jerome Grossman, who later hired Mlyn to work at the Council for a Livable World, a nuclear weapons think tank. He went on to get his Ph.D. in international security and nuclear weapons policy from the University of Minnesota in 1991, and in 1995 he authored a book titled "The State, Society, and Limited Nuclear War."

Though he came to UNC as a member of the political science faculty, Mlyn eventually took lead positions with two initiatives, the Burch Fellows Program and the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence, designed to bolster the undergraduate experience both on and off campus. In these roles, his own undergraduate years were never far from his mind.

"[My work] definitely has its roots in being inspired by certain teachers that I had Tufts," he says.

Broadening Students' Perspectives

In 2000, Mlyn became the first director of the Robertson Scholars Program, a joint effort between UNC and Duke to provide students with merit-based scholarships that allowed them to participate in research, service activities, internships, study abroad opportunities or a semester of study at the other school.

Mlyn notes that Robertson Scholars have worked in places "outside of their comfort zone," such as Cuba and Ho Chi Minh City. He will bring the same approach to his work at Duke.

"It shows students a world that they don't know. It shows them people living in circumstances that they've never fathomed," he explains. "This doesn't replace the traditional four-year college experience. It supplements it in a really important way."

Mlyn, who was one of the driving forces behind the creation of DukeEngage, is working with his staff this summer to gear up for the program's official launch next summer. Already, 90 students are in the field working on pilot projects, a number he hopes will reach 200 next year. He hopes to connect with people at Tisch College to learn from their programs.

"Tufts is also playing a leading role in assessing the impact of civic engagement," says Mlyn. "This is a service to the entire field and one that we hope to become involved with."

Within five years, Mlyn hopes to have one-quarter of Duke undergraduates involved in DukeEngage. It's an ambitious goal, to be sure, but the enthusiasm around the project could make it a realistic one.

"I heard from a lot of seniors last spring who said 'I wish this program had started sooner,'" he says.

Mlyn is no longer in the classroom on a daily basis, though he still teaches as an adjunct associate professor at both UNC and Duke. But in a sense, he has only swapped the chalkboard for a broader palette, offering a curriculum no book can contain.

"I still consider myself to be a teacher," he says, "but I teach in a different way now."

Profile by Georgiana Cohen, Web Communications

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