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I’ve struggled to write this post many times, often sitting down trying to reword my thoughts in a way that cannot be misconstrued as complaining. My time working in Cape Town has been nothing of what I expected it to be. Working at District Six, I expected to see the other side of Cape Town. The side that isn’t perhaps usually accessible to a Duke student on a school-paid trip. Yet, all I saw was the inside of the museum and center a 30 minute walk from my house. I expected to be working long hours from 9-5, but instead I rolled into work at 10 and was practically pushed out the door by 3. I expected to have some sprawling and important project that would affect the museum and leave a lasting impression of Ysanne and Michaela and that winter in 2019 where we had the best interns we’ve ever had, instead we aren’t even invited to the weekly check-in meetings that they have a mere glass pane away from us. I expected to be appreciated and needed as an intern, not a burden.

Duke has quickly become- even outside of South Africa- a large part of my identity. Even back home, my old high school teachers constantly send me articles mentioning Duke, and family members cant say my name without mentioning that I go to Duke. It never gets on my nerve back in the States, but here the association makes me apprehensive. Maybe this apprehension comes from the less than stellar relationship that Michaela and I have with our partner organization internship. From the very first day, our boss made it very clear what she thought about “American students who come abroad to find themselves” and who have this compulsion to somehow make a difference.

I’m not white. I don’t have White Man’s Burden. And frankly, I don’t think any of the white students on my trip suffer from it either. Our boss seems to have this solidified picture of what a Duke student is and refuses to alter her views- no matter how differently we portray ourselves.
The first few weeks at work were not far from disaster, from the cultural jabs and assumptions about our lack of ‘understanding’. I have never been viewed as incapable or further more, unqualified for anything. Usually, if I set my mind to it, I can make something out of any experience, but here.. I am the unqualified Duke student. What I learnt at school couldn’t possibly prepare me for the actual realities of Cape Town politics and social structure.

It was a struggle to get any work on a day to day basis and I struggled with that quite a bit. Not because I didn’t want to waste time, but I feared that I was not being useful to the organization. I often questioned why they took interns if it was so clearly not a space that was conducive for that. I worried that my wanting to learn and have a fruitful internship came off as pestering and annoying. Where does the line blur between being attentive and involved and being a nuisance? Or when is it okay for your employer to make you feel as though you are acting entitled and wanting special treatment when you finish a task and are eager for another? It is difficult getting accustomed to a new pace, but when does a new pace become me sitting at my desk for 5 hours with nothing to do for fear of upsetting my employer or having some sort of verbal attack?

I cannot say that I had the best experience at District Six, or that I had the most fruitful internship and that I changed an organization for the better but I can speak to how much this internship has changed me.

This experience has taught me the weight of expectations and how quickly these expectations can fumble your experience and create a false sense of entitlement. At District Six, I was constantly reminded that I was an intern- and dispensable at that. They didn’t need me. I wasn’t adding any exponential growth to the organization. This was an experience I needed to have.

I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that most of my learning and understanding of Cape Town has not come from my work experience, and while I don’t have stories of how amazing my internship was and how I’ve formed such an unbreakable and meaningful connection with District Six, my time in South Africa has been nothing short of a learning experience, not only about myself and the people I spend the majority of my time with, but also about a country and a people that I now hold so dear.Looking back on the past 8 weeks, my expectations got the best of me and I am so glad that I was able to realize this before I left. I made the most out of what I was given and when what was given wasn’t good enough, I found it myself.