As Duke students, we often think in the grandeur. We wish to create systemic change. We wish to create groundbreaking policies and legislation. We wish to be the leaders of organizations and institutions to change the lives of many in one quick stroke. However, my time at Jiguchon School demonstrated the power of change stemming from personal relationships.
On the first day, I learned of Jihye who would only speak through Yoonsol. If anyone asked Jihye a question, Jihye would whisper it to Yoonsol, and then Yoonsol would say it aloud. What pained me was that this was simply accepted by her peers. Through positive reinforcement, slowly pushing Jihye out of her comfort zone, and sometimes purposefully making sure she won group activities and games, I saw her find her own voice. First, she slowly began to raise her hand on her own and whisper answers to questions. Soon, her hand was jumping in the air in full eagerness to answer questions. She would come up to me during break times to initiate conversations, and we would run around during recess while she stole my shoes so that I could stay a bit longer. A base of friendship between us served as the source of trust she needed to embrace mentorship and guidance that transformed her into a more independent and confident individual.
There were many other students who changed from our personal relationships. I learned that a student who would always sleep in class had to travel two hours to get to school. I learned that some students do not live with their families. I learned that some students have negative relationships with other students. Had I not known their stories, I would not have been able to effectively impact them. Had I not developed these friendships, I would not have been able to gain their trust. Had I not gained their trust, they would not have told me their stories. Had I not gotten to know them and insisted on a top-down approach to change, no ruling would effectively change their lives.
Our time at Jiguchon School did not create systemic change. The problems of marginalization in the school system for immigrants in Korea will remain for the foreseeable future. The problems created by a lack of understanding of the challenges faced by immigrant children will remain for the foreseeable future. Yet, I am immensely proud of the students who changed and grew during our time at Jiguchon. The lives that they will live will have an impact on their friends and the new students who attend Jiguchon. It will impact the ethnic Koreans who interact with them.
While it will take a long time to realize DukeEngage Korea’s vision and mission of integrating immigrants into the relatively homogenous country of Korea, I saw that it only requires a short time for personal relationships to meaningfully change and impact an individual child. That is my theory of change. Change can stem from the one-on-one relationships we cultivated and snowball into something of grandeur.