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As we close out on Week 3, our work has started to show true meaning. Our community partner, the Huilo Huilo Foundation, has been very appreciative along the way, and this gratitude has certainly been a great source of motivation. We can all vouch for the fact that positive reinforcement is effective in boosting morale.

However, at the start of the week, I had felt very different. I had personally started to lose touch with the value of my work. Just like Pink Floyd’s schoolboy choir, I began to feel “another brick in the wall.” I felt like a spare cog in the inner workings of the Huilo Huilo Foundation. All the other volunteers and employees knew their roles and their importance. They knew exactly what they were working towards and had already spent years putting effort into their jobs. I felt like the only one who didn’t understand the immediate utility of my work.

As usual, we held our weekly community meeting with the members of our DukeEngage group and Huilo Huilo staff. It was at this meeting that I finally began to understand the usefulness of our work. Initially, it had almost felt like I was working in the dark with a flashlight strapped to my helmet. I knew what our tasks were and how to do them, but I didn’t know why. However, when it came time to present to the Executive Director of the Foundation our research findings about private nature reserves, I finally began to understand why we did it. We were compiling the go-to source of information for Huilo Huilo to compare itself to. From our research, the Foundation would then go on to improve its structure, finances, and methodology.

Upon realizing the meaning of our work, I instantly felt inspired. As Ariely says in his TEDTalk, the more meaningful your work is, the more you care about it. And this cycle continues: the more effort you put into your work, the more you appreciate its value. Now that my work is enriched with a sense of tangible practicality, I feel good about what I’m doing.

Unlike schoolwork, my DukeEngage work this summer is motivated by positive reinforcement rather than punishment. In school, I mostly feel compelled to complete assignments out of fear of getting a bad grade. The fear of punishment (with potentially long-lasting consequences) is what forces me to work. However, the Chile project gives me the satisfaction of knowing that my work is appreciated and valuable. This mentality of positivity is several orders of magnitude more impactful on me and makes me genuinely interested in what I’m doing. Don’t get me wrong — I love learning and doing my schoolwork. But when working on my DukeEngage project, the amount of hours per week I dedicate to our community partners is not the only element of my work. Relationship-building gives me a deeply emotional connection to my work, and it’s this combination of both effort and connection that makes it all worthwhile.