In preparation for my summer in Thailand with DukeEngage, I was told at the Fortin Foundation DukeEngage Academy not to expect my two months of service learning to change the world. However, I beg to differ. The motto of DukeEngage (“Challenge yourself. Change your world.”) itself emphasizes the significance of this experience to a participating individual by using “yourself” and “your world.” Realistically, neither two months’ time nor the manpower of one person is sufficient to make a noticeable difference in the disparities and inequalities that people around the globe universally face. Lack of education and economic opportunity, food and water security, poverty, political instability, climate change and the destruction of natural resources; the list is seemingly endless.
Through service learning I will change many worlds, not just my own. Albeit, living in the coastal village of Ban Nam Khem in Phang Nga Province for three weeks has changed my world, and more than just geographically speaking. Becoming integrated into a community, into a culture, does not come from appreciating what you have that others lack, or what others have that you yourself lack, or from solving a differential equation for that matter. Integration comes from learning. Each and every person holds value; there is something to be learned from every person we encounter throughout our lives. Therefore, if we are able to learn how to learn from others, every person we learn from changes us, and every person who learns from us is thereby also changed.
But how does service learning accomplish this? Let’s start with service. As a GVI volunteer, I have gone on biodiversity survey hikes in national parks, I have scrubbed turtle tanks on my hands and knees, I have picked up trash from beaches, I have taught conservation education at an island school, and I have taught English as a foreign language to the staff at ThaiLife Resort & Homestay. To be of service to others means to utilize your talents to benefit a greater cause or common good, rather than just for personal gain. And talent doesn’t necessarily imply something extraordinary, like exceptional intelligence, or reciting a hundred digits of pi, or baking twenty minute brownies in fifteen minutes. Talent can be ordinary, and can simply come in the form of a sound mind, able body, and a willingness to serve. One of the greatest gifts we have is the gift of each other.
Now, for learning. From my experience so far, the best way to learn from others is to listen more than you speak, to be observant of what is going on around you more than you divert attention to yourself, and most importantly, to smile. Thai people are probably the most joyous and friendly people I’ve ever met. But sometimes my Thai pronunciation is so bad that I don’t even have to initiate the smiling, it just happens naturally in the process of laughing with me. If I expect my students to speak a second language, shouldn’t I myself be willing to step outside my comfort zone and speak in a tongue other than my native one? I’m never going to sound like a native Thai speaker by living in the country for two months, so some may ask what’s the point. The point is solutions to real world problems don’t come in right or wrong answers. There are no office hours you can attend, no TAs you can ask, no answer key in the back of a textbook you can check, no organization you can join to get a Chegg account. Inevitably, your system will be inefficient, your process will be flawed, and your product yield an embarrassment to any faculty of the chemistry department. The point is to have a mutual respect for one another because we are able to see the value each of us holds. The point is when one of resort staff sees me and feels confident to ask in English “Hello Sam, how are you?” I am able to respond the same phrase back in their native tongue “Sawatdee ka, sabaai dee mai?” And thus, through giving myself to service and to learning from others, not only have I added value to my world, but I have also left value in someone else’s world that will persist long after my two month stay is over.