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Let me preface that I appreciate DukeEngage and the opportunity it has given me. My experience this summer has taught me more about myself in 9 weeks than I likely learned about myself during my freshman year at Duke (which says something). Likewise, I’ve learned more about global development and field engineering than any class at Duke has taught me. This expanded breadth of knowledge has also taught me to be more critical of what I thought I knew.

I began to think more about DukeEngage’s motto, printed in large white text online and on the back of our DukeEngage shirts: “Challenge Yourself. Change Your World.” The thing is, the world isn’t yours to change, just like it’s not mine to change. The world does not belong to you or me, and neither do the hundreds of personal narratives rooted in local communities – whether they be in Tanzania, Durham, Madagascar, or China. The only thing we own is our experience.

So many people come into their projects with expectations. I certainly came into my summer with high expectations (as much as I hate to admit it). As soon as we set these expectations, we confine ourselves to the worlds that we think we know. Our own individual worlds. These aren’t the worlds we’re trying to change — they aren’t real. How can we go into these experiences with expectations of how we can change a world when we don’t truly try to understand the narratives of those that we will encounter during our experiences? The first step in understanding someone’s experience is to completely tear down your own expectations. The next step is to listen — and listen with the intent of simply listening. Truly listening and attempting to understand someone’s narrative requires a blank slate. Expectations taint our perceptions of reality.

That’s why the world isn’t yours to change. It’s not yours. You listen and you learn. We can’t expect to be let into peoples’ worlds simply by asking. We can only be let into people’s worlds by seeking to understand their worlds and their realities.

How can you expect to go in and change another place if you don’t even understand it?

What’s the purpose of going to another place if you don’t seek to understand it? If you only go with the goal of changing your world, you’ve done a disservice to global development and the community that was disillusioned by your presence. The only thing we can do is change a world by knowing a world – anyone’s world. But not your world.