Looking back, DukeEngage Academy was kind of like a pep rally for DukeEngage. A slightly boring and overly long pep rally, but a pep rally all the same. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t really the original intention, but I think that those two days contributed to our perceptions about what our summer experiences would entail. We heard the testimonials of a few of the former participants who spoke passionately about their summers in UgandaIndiaChinaKenyaGuatemala. We learned about the ambitious students who returned to Duke to incorporate their summer experiences into research projects or documentaries or local activism or all of the above. And, most importantly, we remember all of the classic pictures of DukeEngage participants posing with the adorable smiling children in their site placements, or conquering the harsh terrain of some jungle or mountain. It all seemed so enticingly unglamorous- it is this very unglamorous-ness that seems to draw so many people to DukeEngage. The program offers the opportunity to be thrown outside of your comfort zone, to do something great, to experience a totally new culture, to enact change…and of course, to get an awesome new profile picture to show just how Engaged™ you really are.
So, of course, I came into this program with very idealized expectations of what the summer would entail. As my classmates embarked to cure AIDS, stop gender violence, promote economic development, etc., I was prepared to confront the humanitarian abuses associated with the current system of immigration. I was fully anticipating the reality of the challenges I would face. But at the same time, I was also fully anticipating my ability to do something substantial, something I could bring back with me to Duke. And of course, I was fully anticipating an artsy, existential picture of the physical and psychological border between the United States and Mexico. Kind of like this one.
But as it turns out, a lot of non-profit work is not as idealized as DukeEngage Academy made it seem. Maybe idealized isn’t the right word, but I definitely didn’t think about the fact that most work takes place in an office. Look at the DukeEngage website home page. There are exactly zero pictures of people sitting in offices. In these pictures, the students are challenging themselves, and changing their worlds. I initially worried that I wouldn’t get the “real” DukeEngage experience while working in such a safe and controlled environment as an office (although, as I would later learn, the refugees who randomly drop by make the office less than “controlled”). And it was frustrating at first. I was undoubtedly learning about the refugee population in the United States, and about sustainable, local agriculture—but was I really changing my world?
I think that a big misconception surrounding DukeEngage is that students always immerse themselves in a different culture and take huge strides in making a difference. In fact, I think this is a misconception about “service” in general. But what we often tend to forget is that there are organizers who have the less DukeEngage-glamorous job of making things happen. And even though it doesn’t feel like “changing your world”, the reality is the world-changing events wouldn’t happen unless someone was sending emails, updating calendars, making phone calls, sending more emails, stuffing envelopes, flyering, and making newsletters. Sure, these tasks don’t sound as cool. They don’t really parallel with the pictures that generally emerge en masse after everyone returns from their summer experiences. DukeEngage is a great program with great intentions. But I think that challenging the idea of a “typical” DukeEngage experience has allowed me to question what service really is, and what “change your world” really implies in the DukeEngage slogan. I think that my world is being changed, but it is by the smaller and less-photographable experiences—the conversations with refugees from around the world, the juicing of about 5 million locally grown grapefruit, the USCIS citizenship ceremony, seeing detainees behind a glass wall at Border Patrol (technically we weren’t allowed to take pictures of this one), eating my first grapefruit (it was a big day), and having the best homemade cup of Eritrean coffee ever at a refugee’s apartment (even though my initial intention was to go there to teach an English class). Although we have kind of mocked the “challenge yourself, change your world” slogan (sorry DukeEngage), I do think that these small events have, consciously or not, changed the way I conceptualize the world of service.