Scholar Profiles

Vignesh Alagappan

Campus: Duke
Hometown: Melbourne, Australia
High School: Camberwell Grammar School

As students, our experience is largely defined by questions. There are questions our teachers ask us about concepts covered in class. There are questions our friends ask us about what we’re doing on the weekend. There are questions our relatives ask us about where we want to go to college. You see, questions are funny little things because they seem to promise the existence of an answer. And, I’m not so sure that’s always true. “How can I, with my unique bundle of life experiences, skills, and interests, make a lasting and positive impact on the world?” That question cannot be answered with a neatly parameterized formula. No amount of Google searching or Quora mining will yield that transcendent prism of knowledge through which your life’s purpose will suddenly be revealed and you will attain a state of well-deserved Nirvana. This seemingly futile search for an answer to what is, in all likelihood, an unanswerable question, is what has defined my experience before Duke, is currently defining my experience within Duke, and will most certainly define my experience after Duke. In freshman year of high school, I tagged along with an Australian diplomatic mission to Istanbul to celebrate 100 years of peace between our two countries. What impressed me most about the visit was not the formal ceremony, nor the impeccably attired guards (and the decidedly less well-attired politicians), but the local craftsmen and small-town traders that I met after the formalities ended. Here was a group of people who defied the oh-so-Western axiom that a high standard of living meant the same thing as a happy standard of living. Here was where I learned to question what “making a positive impact on the world” really meant. Clearly, it wasn’t just about money. By the time sophomore year rolled around, I was working as a TA for an online course – then offered by the University of British Columbia. Having been the beneficiary of a highly focused, well-resourced, and supportive education throughout my entire life, I truly wanted to believe that the internet was a medium through which knowledge could be provided to anyone and everyone who was willing to learn. Approximately half a million emails and emergency last-minute Skype calls later, I was somewhat less convinced. The vast majority of my time was spent fixing technical issues and teaching students how to use the forums. This was far from the smooth dissemination of information I had imagined. Therefore, having shifted my focus in my final years of high school to the challenges faced by local brick-and-mortar schools, I began working with an organization called We Can’t Wait. They provide sustainable sanitation solutions to girls’ schools in India: In many parts of South Asia, over 50% of girls miss school when they have their period. By providing safe, hygienic, and dignified facilities for girls to use at school during their menstrual cycle, We Can’t Wait attempts to keep girls in school for longer. My work with this organization had a profound impact on my understanding of positive social change. I learned that social innovation was different from for-profit innovation in one key regard – you had to start with the people, not the “product” or “intervention”. Far too often, Western ideals and cultural norms – the “interventions” – are forced onto people in developing countries in a form of UN-sanctioned neocolonialism. That’s why I will be spending my time at Duke learning more about the international development sector, and how we can put people first in our drive to achieve positive social impact. I will be taking a Program II major, where I will study the intersection of foreign policy, economics, cultural anthropology, and statistics to try and figure out how we can make things better without making them worse. Will I succeed in answering my question? I don’t know. But I do know that my search for an answer will lead me to new and exciting adventures, where I will be challenged, and pushed back, and pushed back again. I can’t wait.

What drew you to the Robertson Program?

One statement really stood out to me from the application information session that I attended: “The Robertson Program is not a scholarship; it is an investment in potential.” I was drawn to the idea of a coordinated program which brought together mentoring, activities, summer opportunities, and a community of people who also measured success through the lens of social impact. There is a whole host of staff and alumni here who are deeply invested in helping you leave your mark on the world, and that can be a very powerful thing.

Alagappan Vignesh