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COVID has been around for well over a year now, and yet everyone still experiences the pandemic differently – while the situation is finally beginning to improve in the United States, India has been in the throes of a second wave of COVID-19 since March this year, highlighting the disparities that exist with who has been able to receive the vaccine. Doses are not equally available to everyone and at the same time, there are many who are not convinced about the safety of the vaccine. I know that I have been extremely privileged and fortunate to be relatively safe during the pandemic. However, I also know that as an American student whose only exposure to the larger world is through the internet, I can only offer a narrow perspective when it comes to my DukeEngage internship in Ahmedabad.

This idea troubled me as I began my DukeEngage program – of course, I tried to keep an attitude of earnest interest, but I couldn’t help the wave of caution and hesitance that hit me as well. I struggle with the dilemma of how to bridge my own gap in understanding an unfamiliar culture, a trepidation that increases with the new obstacles of a Zoom format and a nine-and-a-half hour overseas time difference. As a part of the preliminary process, I had read an article in the Duke Chronicle about the American college students who volunteered to build houses in Tanzania. However, due to their lack of local knowledge, their actions caused more trouble for the locals who had to tear down their work and rebuild after each day. Even though I won’t physically be in Ahmedabad this year, I want to avoid “building awful houses” as much as possible.

I know that good intentions won’t absolve wrongdoing, in a service work context. Despite the limitations, I believe, it is still possible to engage in some form of “being with” others. A particular moment that helped me refocus during the initial weeks of DukeEngage was when Dr. Sudarshan Iyengar gave a (virtual) talk on Mahatma Gandhi. Dr. Iyengar spoke of Gandhi’s relentless pursuit of honesty and integrity – character traits that piqued my interest because I believe that these critical characteristics are important to develop for accomplishing something meaningful. I asked him if he had any advice for us interns, and Dr. Iyengar highlighted the importance of having conviction while not trying to emulate others’ ambitions, as well as the need to build one’s own character before trying to help others.

I understood the first point well enough, but the latter made me think a bit more – was I aware of my strengths and weaknesses well enough to produce something concrete during these few weeks of my summer engagement with DukeEngage? At this point, I don’t have it all figured out, but I do know what I can focus on, and what I can contribute to the team: an open mind, enthusiasm in learning from my mentors and peers, and a priority for maintaining cultural sensitivity while bringing an individual perspective to the specific issue I’m interested in. I can’t grasp all the nuances of urban health and access in Ahmedabad as an outsider who has never been there, but I can certainly take the initiative into my own hands to learn what I can on my own. I always knew that my 8-week contribution would not come close to the foundational work that my project’s partner organization has spent decades building up, and I know better than to head into the next few weeks with an overconfident mentality that I’m here to “help” and “make things better.” I don’t think this is anything groundbreaking, but then again, it’s also valuable to remind myself that it’s okay to be a small piece of a larger puzzle.

Heiley Tai