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What actual impact can you have in 8 weeks?

Every year, Duke students buy their new business casual wear and head to the internships of their choice. Sometimes you’ll see a post on Facebook about their upcoming work: the organization, the fancy job title, the enviable location, and the description of the work that sounds great but doesn’t really say much at all. Then you scroll down and see all of the “I’m so proud of you!” and “You’re doing such great work!” comments. Maybe the student genuinely thinks, Yes, I will change this organization single-handedly in one summer! I’ll do things this organization has never seen before! I’ll make a difference! And if the student thinks that, then they’re likely in for a harsh realization later on because the duration of a summer break from school is not nearly long enough to do anything substantial for those organizations.

Think about everything that goes into “making a difference” in the ways that Duke students expect. Start by thinking about the organizations they’ll work for. We’re Duke students, so naturally, they’ll be big-name organizations that are trying to fix decades of problems. They probably have an extensive staff full of dedicated employees who have been working there for years. That staff has been trained, educated, and practiced in the work they’re doing.

Now think of where the student is in comparison. They’ve had zero training directly tied to their work. They’ve had next to no education in the nuances of the problems they’re trying to fix. They’ve had no practice because they just got there! But they’re the one that’s going to make a difference?

I’ve been working at my internship at the District Six Museum for a month now and I’m still at maybe a basic level of knowledge about the issues I’m working on. Restitution and heritage are complex topics, to say the least, and require more research and learning than anyone can fit in a year, let alone a month. Add all of the exploring and sight-seeing and hiking and clubbing we want to do while we’re here, and we’ve got next to no time at all. Add the fact that it’s been a 14-year process to seek recognition for District Six as a national heritage site and a 25-year process to seek restitution for the ex-residents of District Six, and suddenly a month’s worth of work sounds like nothing.

We met with the head of the District Six Working Committee this week and I left the meeting thinking we could just do this and that and suddenly we could marry heritage and restitution in a productive way, as if it would just take a couple of meetings and a short amount of time. But then I realized that such thinking was downright silly. Not only silly, but arrogant. Did I really think I was so special that, now that I’m here, we could fix these huge problems? Did I really think that, if the solution were so simple that it would take a couple of meetings to solve these problems, no one else who has actually lived those problems would have figured it out it yet? Of course not!

The takeaway from this negativity is a level of humility. It’s okay that we’re not going to produce some huge breakthrough that will change District Six and Cape Town forever. That’s not what my bosses expect of us, and we shouldn’t expect that of ourselves, either. This is a time for me to add whatever helpful perspective I have and provide whatever labor I can offer. Selfishly, it’s a time for me to grow and hopefully internalize this newfound knowledge and these different perspectives so that I can utilize them when I’m in a position to make an actual impact. But I’m not going to BS myself or anyone else by saying that DukeEngage, or any other summer internship, is about making any sort of profound, lasting difference.