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I am currently participating in DukeEngage-New Orleans.

I initially wanted to write this blog post about one of our program’s weekly trips, such as the plantations we visited or the talk we listened to at Covenant House (a youth homeless shelter), both of which profoundly affected me and made me question my privilege and why I deserved to live the life that I do. Nonetheless, I found it difficult to relate my personal background to a history of poverty and racism Fortunately, I have never experienced any of these issues, so I was confused about how to write about them. I finally decided that I wanted this blog post to be about how my perspective on community service has changed over the last six weeks.

At the beginning of the program, activism was almost an abstraction to me. I had never performed community service selflessly, or felt a real need to do it, so I felt like I had never really done it. Many people that I know have done service purely to make their resumes appear more impressive or to get something back in return. They didn’t do it with the aim to benefit others — only themselves. In high school, I cannot deny that I was similar to them, but I knew that I did not want to fall into that trap for the New Orleans program.

I started the program with very high hopes that my work would have a profound impact on the people of New Orleans. Unfortunately, my aspiration of being so impactful was not totally satisfied. A large part of my job has been getting data for medical providers, so the company that I work for will be able to tell if their providers are making them a profit. This meant that I was collecting patient appointment data by implementing computer programs to parse through reports. Even though I was utilizing the talents that I had learned at Duke, I could not clearly see the positive consequences of my work; I could not see the patients that I was helping; I could not even see the providers. This, to say the least, was very frustrating. My work was behind the scenes, and I wanted very much the opposite.

I quickly realized that I was ignorant about the identities of New Orleans people: their way of life, culture, and diversity. Surely, my job was not giving me any information about these people other than their medical histories. To some success, I began to form more images in my mind about whom these people really were. It all started by attending the program’s weekly trips, where I learned about the history of New Orleans, shaped by slavery, homelessness, and Hurricane Katrina. I tasted New Orleans food, always hot with spices and filled with so many different flavors; I listened to New Orleans jazz, tapping my feet on the ground and shuffling my arms back-and-forth in an attempt to dance to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Most importantly, I learned about the suffering of the poor and their constant struggle to find stable housing or even a job. This stuck out to me the most.

After six weeks, I have found the biggest change has been in my awareness of the issues, such as mental health, racism, human trafficking, etc., that predominantly plague the poor. My work in New Orleans and the program’s weekly trips have given me a dialogue — more like a syntax than a script — to discuss these issues. I have developed an awareness of these problems, and it has profoundly affected what I envision my role in society to be. I do not want to live my life knowing that I have only benefited myself. It is not fair that I am given more opportunities due to my background. There needs to a change to give equal opportunity, but this can never happen without first recognizing and learning about the problems that need to be solved. DukeEngage has given me a new perspective on service that I will be forever grateful for.