Being in Serbia has taught me how to put my education into practice. I’m a cultural anthropology major. Normally when I tell people that, the first question they ask is what I want to do once I graduate. When I get asked this question, my stomach normally bubbles with butterflies and my mind races as I attempt to formulate an answer that justifies my choice to study such an “unmarketable” major. “I want to be a professor” I say more often than not. A look of approval will then appear on the interrogator’s face, as he is then able to put my life’s path into a comprehensible box. The truth of the matter is that I have no idea what I want to do after I graduate from Duke. I might want to be a professor; I might not want to be a professor. This uncertainty is socially unacceptable in a community where seemingly a majority of people are reared to be jet-setting consultants or tech gurus. However, being in Serbia has provided me with the self-assurance to come to peace with my uncertainty and approach my future in a way that works for me. This revelation is because, as I stated at the beginning of the blog post, Serbia has taught me how to put my education into practice.
It’s 9:30am and I board Bus 16. Despite having a thirty-minute bus ride from my flat in New Belgrade to my office in the Belgrade city center, I don’t sit down. Rather, I lean up against the window in the standing area of the bus. My stop is the first one on Bus 16’s route, so there are plenty of empty seats, but, again, I don’t sit down. As the bus continues along its route, more people begin entering and leaving the bus. Soon, Route 16 grows pretty crowded. All of the new bodies only exacerbate the immense heat that can be felt on the bus, as there’s no air conditioning and its 90 degrees outside. The women are all waving fans against their faces and the men are wiping their sweat off with small hand towels. At this point in my commute to my work at the Asylum Protection Center, there are no empty seats.
A 65-year-old woman with a cane boards the bus. A 35-year-old woman sitting down looks at the older woman and does nothing. The older woman approaches the woman sitting down and asks for her seat. The seated woman begrudgingly stands up and offers her seat to the elderly woman. “Rude,” I think. I catch myself in this thought. Why did I find that exchange so repulsive? In the United States I would consider that interaction rather pleasant: an older woman asks a younger woman for her seat and the woman obliges. I realized that in anthropology there is an idea that you are a field note. In other words, your emotional and physical reactions to stimuli can help you analyze whatever cultural phenomena you may be experiencing. It was at this moment when I realized I had become so entrenched in Serbian culture that I knew the older woman shouldn’t have had to ask; in Serbia, if an elderly person walks onto the bus, everyone should stand up and offer their seat if need be, and they do so without being prompted. I reflected on this experience and realized that this is why I had subconsciously stopped sitting down on the bus.
This anecdote, although infinitesimal in global impact, changed my DukeEngage experience. I began looking at myself more critically as I moved through space. I began asking questions like “why does everybody sit in the aisle seat first instead of sitting in the window seat, allowing for easier access for the next person to sit down” and “why am I so shocked every time I see a 50-year-old man licking an ice cream cone?” (which happens a lot in Serbia).
Despite no academic responsibilities, being in Serbia has made me a better anthropologist and a better student. Picking up on subtle cultural differences and having the capacity to rationalize/contextualize them justified my DukeEngage experience. These experiences gave me confidence in the path I’ll take back home, no matter what it may be, as I’ve seen my work in practice. To any student who is thinking about DukEngage that may be unconfident about their future, DukeEngage is a wonderful opportunity to gain whatever assurance and legitimization that you may need. You’ll learn about yourself, others, and the world. To an “unmarketable” CulAnth major like myself, this growth has made all the difference.