“A cog in the machine” is a phrase that is embedded with heavy negative connotation. It reminds us of how small and insignificant we are in this world and its institutions. However, in the past few weeks, I have learned that the cogs are as important as the machine. Without cogs, the machines that our countries run would fall apart. The DukeEngage program here in Washington D.C. seems at first one that did not fit alongside all the other programs. Whether it’s helping refugees or the homeless, the impacts of the other programs seem immediate and prominent. Here in D.C., we work with organizations, doing regular desk jobs that a typical intern would do. It is no wonder that one of the most often asked questions by others is how this program could call itself service. In the beginning, I did not know that answer either. At that time, all the talk and description of the program as an experience that would teach me how to be of service in the policy realm seemed like a stretch to fit the program within DukeEngage standards.
It took three weeks of working in an office for me to finally realize the value of this program. During the Fortin Academy, a stark comparison was drawn between those who pursued lasting change or immediate change. While I believe we need both in this world, most of my previous experiences with community service and through different volunteering opportunities exposed me mainly to activities that caused an immediate impact. As someone who wants to go into policymaking for the purposes of trying to make the world a better place, I find being a cog in the machine a valuable experience and lesson. Sometimes it is frustrating to not understand how summarizing a paper could possibly help the world, as opposed to seeing the smiles of those who received a meal after helping in a food kitchen. Other times, it is boring to be doing basic data entry while knowing that my potential reaches far beyond such work. Ultimately, this experience is humbling. Not in a cultural sense that other programs may be, or in an academic sense. This experience is humbling by putting to scale the scope and size of a single organization. I have long known that my life is less than a speck in the grand scheme of the universe and history but seeing how small I am in perspective to even one company is quite humbling.
At the same time, however, despite how small I am in the whole machine of policymaking, it is comforting to know that my work does play a role that would not be filled should I not be here. From the different congressional hearings I’ve participated in, to my research on different policy areas, it is clear that there are way too many cogs that are missing in this machine. It is so unfortunate that the limits of the effectiveness of our machine of policymaking, and indeed almost every problem in this world, are defined by available resources.