For many Duke students, Friday brings with it the promise of a restful weekend and most importantly, a lightened class load. During my sophomore year, I spent my extra time painstakingly running gels in the neuroscience lab. At 3pm, I would sprint out towards the chapel bus stop, each step taking me closer to the highlight of my week: volunteering at the Emily K Center. Here, I would work with the students on academic enrichment activities or on honing their capoeira skills. While working in a lab and volunteering with children may seem vastly different, they are both connected by a single thread: the desire to make change. This connection may not be readily apparent, because our definition of change-making is often dictated by our field of work. For a pre-med student, change-making might lie in basic and translational science research. In contrast, change-making for an NGO involves supporting communities through direct service, like my role in the Emily K Center. Each form of change-making is equally important and impactful, and each form provides the individual performing the “service” a deep sense of fulfillment.
The need for fulfillment in our change-making activity is essential because it fuels our sense of purpose and thus can help us become more efficient and impactful change-makers. Yet, we rarely discuss our own fulfillment and growth in our change-making experiences. We either evade or completely ignore this topic, because we have been taught that change-making is a one-directional path through which we serve communities. But is this true? In the incipient stages of our change-making journey, can we truly start off by giving more than we receive?
I strongly believe that the answer is No. To become more efficient change-makers, we must first take the time to invest in our own understanding of how change arises. We must normalize that growing and broadening our own perspectives, through interdisciplinary immersion, is not only acceptable but also essential to understand the community and project at hand. Failure to do so increases the chance of us unintentionally harming the communities we are working with due to our haste in attempting to mend a system or uplift a community we do not yet fully understand. Prioritizing our own learning does not make us self-centered or privileged, but rather makes us pragmatic. It allows us to ascribe the true power of change-making to community leaders and our mentors, who have had significantly more experience tackling societal inequalities than Duke undergrads. Most importantly, being honest about our skill sets and intentions puts us in a position to invest in our own potential to impart change more effectively in the long run.
Challenge Yourself. Change Your World. This is the motto we are encouraged to keep in mind throughout our Duke Engage experience. So, let’s challenge ourselves, not to immediately impart change, but to accept that we will be taking more from the communities we work with than we will be giving. Let’s challenge ourselves to be more honest and intentional in our actions by acknowledging the fact that we are not yet fully prepared to change the world. In the words of our most recent speaker Dr. Ram Kumar, change-making is akin to the oxygen masks available on aircrafts. Similar to how the staff asks us to put on their own oxygen mask before putting on those of others, it is essential for us to grow first before we help others grow. Let’s challenge ourselves to prioritize humbly putting on our own oxygen mask first so that we can one day become the change-makers we aspire to be today.