(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
For the third consecutive summer, DukeEngage has sent a group of Duke students to Belgrade, Serbia to broaden our horizons through service. As I write, we eight students, hailing from Beijing to New York City, Texas to Indonesia, converge onto the city from all directions. We come in the hopes of performing meaningful service for our host community and growing in our sense of selves along the way. We arrive understanding the coming challenge, and for me, the reality that I will be pushed far outside my comfort zone over the next eight weeks, has already sunk in.
As I sit in the Belgrade airport waiting for a few of my other teammates to arrive before we are shown to our accommodations for our orientation, it’s all too clear that I’m not in Durham anymore. As my phone connects to wifi and my GroupMe and Facebook catch up to date, messages about last night’s new episode of Game of Thrones or the NBA Playoffs vibrate my phone while I attempt to adapt to my new world.
While Serbia certainly is not nearly as remote as other DukeEngage sites like Uganda or Nicaragua, the country poses its own unique difficulties. The most visible of which, the language, written in the Cyrillic alphabet, is unfamiliar to all of our team, and is causing me a slight headache as I struggle to remind myself what I know about the strange mix of characters. The dumbfounded looks of my friends and family members as I told them my summer plans over the past couple weeks are almost comical to me now. And while most of them had mistaken this country for Siberia, or more disturbingly, Syria, I certainly understand their looks of confusion, as I’m sure it’s registering the same on my face as I remember that the Cyrillic character p makes the sound we know as r.
But for me at least, Serbia offers such a unique opportunity that this confusion, this discomfort, will be worth the reward a thousandfold. While I’ll be living in a full-fledged city, with full amenities and all-important wifi, unlike the usual for other DukeEngagers, Belgrade is very much a city in transition that is prime for us to learn more than we ever could in a lecture hall. It’s seen great horrific internal tragedy and fierce external intervention within the past thirty years, and now it faces historic migrant flows while attempting to gain entry into the European Union. The region offers us unparalleled opportunity to observe, learn, and apply our studies in a way that may be impactful in some manner, to some extent, to our community.
For now though, the future is a mystery. In a few days, I’ll begin my work with the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network, a regionally-focused, internationally-targeted news publication, for which I could not be more excited. At the same time though, I recognize all too well my deficiencies and worry about the extent of the impact I’ll be able to make aiding my journalist colleagues and drafting my own publications. This is just part of the journey though, I know I’ll help to the fullest capacity I can, and I know that’s all I can ask of myself. But this is just the beginning!