The SOL Experience
Jason Wong, 2010 SOL Participant
Click the headings below to read about Jason Wong’s “SOL Experience”
Click the headings below to read about Jason Wong’s “SOL Experience”
During the fall of his freshman year at Duke, Jason Wong, a hard-working and enthusiastic economics major from Singapore, decided to apply to the Service Opportunities and Leadership (SOL) program.
In the SOL essay prompt, Jason encountered questions such as: “why are you interested in joining SOL?” and “which leadership skills are most important for you to develop at this point in your college career?” In response to the first question, he wrote:
"I want my life to be one where I serve those who are most in need. I see my time at Duke as a time to learn how to become a leader to undertake this task…The description of SOL sounded precisely like something that could help me get closer to that impossible dream." (Jason Wong)
In addition to writing about skills and motivations, aspiring SOL students also discuss potential ideas for their summer research projects. Jason, who arrived to Duke with a long-standing interest in water issues and a scholarship from Singapore’s water agency, wrote about his desire to participate in a project developing sustainable water sources for deprived communities.
Prepare: The SOL Gateway Course (Spring Semester)
“How many of the world’s problems could be solved if our leaders could reach across the table and work with somebody they cannot understand? Border Crossing describes leadership as ‘the art of working productively with difficult value conflicts.’ The class doesn’t promise to get you there straight away, but it equips you with the knowledge, mindset, and heart to get you further along the journey.” (Jason Wong)
After submitting his application essay, Jason was admitted to the SOL Gateway course, Border Crossing: Leadership, Value Conflicts and Public Life (PPS263) During this spring semester course, Jason and his classmates broached topics of cross-cultural understanding, value conflicts, and the inevitable complexities of service.
Through challenging class readings, such as Adam Hochschild’s retelling of the abolition of slavery in Bury the Chains, lively discussions, and reflective writing exercises, Jason and his classmates prepared to conduct immersive community-based research projects. Students learn to think beyond logistics and summer funding and to embrace the uncertainty and challenges they will encounter in the field.
Midway through the semester, students applied lessons about border crossing by completing a service project for a Durham-based community organization.
- In spring 2011, SOL students partnered with the community organization, Durham C.A.N. They worked with Latino youth and families to prepare for a meeting with the district superintendent about the particular educational challenges faced by immigrant youth in Durham Public Schools.
Students interested in committing to the yearlong SOL program submit a grant proposal outlining the key dimensions of their community-based research projects including: a community partner organization, an initial research question, a faculty mentor, and a budget.
Immerse: The Community-Based Research Project (Summer)
“I wondered why I flinch in the face of poverty; instead of staring it down, I can't help but want to look away. Maybe it's because I had never lived with it before, and something inside me doesn't want to believe that it's true, that it's something people live with every day.” (Jason Wong)
The summer after taking the SOL Gateway Class, Jason spent eight weeks immersed in Kashongi, a rural community in Uganda, confronting the realities of water deprivation.
For his community-based research project, Jason worked with Duke’s Progressive Health Partnership (PHP) and the Mayanja Memorial Hospital Foundation (MMHF). The goal of his summer project was to help his host organization assess and improve to the long-term sustainability of a collaboration project called the Institutional Rainwater Harvesting Network.
Within the first few weeks of his trip, Jason faced difficulties and disappointments as he struggled to find his place in a new community. Jason realized that as an Asian foreigner with a thick Singaporean accent, he would stand out among locals and become a target for attention. To learn more about Jason’s experience read one of his “Letters Home.”
In time, Jason built trust and formed relationships with members of the community; becoming more familiar with his host country helped him to see the reality of its struggles with water deprivation.
After conducting numerous surveys, interviews, and focus groups about water and water tank usage, Jason began to notice common themes. His research revealed that while local communities had sufficient financial resources to sustain the Institutional Rainwater Harvesting Network, the long-term success of the system hinged on the villagers' belief in the value of the project.
By the end of the summer, Jason had put together an initial analysis that suggested improvements for the management and maintenance of the Institutional Rainwater Harvesting Network.
Reflect & Refine: The SOL Capstone Class (Fall Semester)
"One of the biggest lessons for me was that things I learned in the classroom are actually relevant to what I do, what I am interested in, and the things I will be tackling in the rest of my life.” (Jason Wong)
Upon returning to Duke, Jason reunited with his classmates in the SOL Capstone Course, Adaptive Leadership (PPS264) to refine, expand, and reflect on his summer work. The purpose of the course is to allow students to integrate what they learned during the summers with concepts of leadership, ethics, politics, and policy design.
The course teaches students to identify and analyze adaptive problems, which are by definition complex and systemic. In fall 2011, students analyzed topics such as hydraulic fracturing and gang violence in Chicago using the adaptive leadership framework. While exploring these issues, students are also challenged to find their voices in the classroom and through their writing.
The capstone course also helps students revisit their summer experiences in the context of adaptive leadership. Throughout the semester, students create a capstone research portfolio about a social issue related to their summer work.
Inspired by his work in Uganda, Jason dedicated his portfolio to water deprivation, this time switching his focus from rural to urban water supply. He investigated barriers that prevent urban slum-dwellers from accessing reliable, clean water across the world—with a primary focus on Mumbai, India. This capstone research portfolio incorporates multiple forms of analysis including a policy memo, book review, and leadership analysis.
The Next Step: "Going Public"
Given their yearlong accomplishments in SOL, students often find creative ways to "Go Public" with their work, whether that means publishing their research findings in an academic journal, or finding different forums to shed light on important local and global issues.
"When I was starting my honors thesis, I went back to my SOL summer project and started thinking about ‘what is the adaptive challenge’? And I realized that even though [my honors thesis] was very technical—I spent a lot of time working on statistics programs doing mathematical calculations—I saw that the problem was very much institutional, systemic. And I started to analyze my data from that point of view.” (Jason Wong)
After completing his coursework and summer research project, Jason was eager to take his questions and insights into the public sphere. He expanded on the themes from his summer research and capstone project in several ways.
- Spring 2011: After completing SOL, Jason wrote an honors thesis about his research in Uganda that earned distinction from the Economics department.
- Spring 2011: In April 2011, Jason presented his work at Duke’s undergraduate research symposium, Visible Thinking.
- Summer 2011: The summer after completing SOL, Jason returned to the Singapore water agency to work as an economics intern and analyst on a multimillion dollar project to design new pipelines for domestic industrial water distribution systems.
- Fall 2012: Jason is starting a one year Management Science and Engineering Masters’ program at Stanford University before returning to work for the Singaporean water agency.