(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
When I was in elementary school, I’m pretty sure I thought that my teachers knew everything. I’m not sure if our Jiguchon students felt that way about us, but they definitely had a lot of questions to ask us. “Teacher, what is that?” “Teacher, what are we doing?” “Teacher, what does that mean?” “Teacher… what?” We did have answers to those questions (when they were asked in a language that we understood), but as we finished our time at Jiguchon, we found that we were the ones doing the questioning.
At our group meetings the past two weeks, many of us expressed doubts about the impact of our service in this community. As a group of untrained teachers who were often unable to completely control our larger classes, we wondered if we were undoing standards of discipline at the school. When the students didn’t understand or simply weren’t interested in the topics that we were trying to teach them, we became frustrated with our inability to engage them in learning. As our time at Jiguchon came to a close, we began to think about the brevity of our service there and how little we really had time to do. Would that shy student have opened up if we had had just another week with her? Would that rowdy student have begun to listen if we had been able to give him more individualized attention over a long period of time? It seemed like just as soon as we started to figure out what we were doing at Jiguchon, we left it. In the bigger picture, what role were we playing as foreigners in this community? Would the students be better served by someone more intimately familiar with their situation who could stay for a longer period of time?
At the DukeEngage Academy, we spent a lot of time discussing the ethics of civic engagement and foreign service, so we felt that we were mentally prepared for our program before we left. However, many of us had been planning to participate in a DukeEngage program for months or even years, and we found our critiques difficult to reconcile with the idealized vision of civic engagement that we had held for so long. Even those of us who had participated in similar programs before and “knew what to expect” voiced similar doubts and concerns.
As we continued to ask these questions of ourselves, we discussed them with each other, our professors, and past participants of DukeEngage programs. As it turns out, we were not alone in our concerns. Even DukeEngagers who had previously given glowing reviews of their summers in the program revealed that they too had questioned and critiqued their own service work. As one friend of mine put it, “I think if you’re not questioning your program or DukeEngage at one point, you’re doing something wrong.” DukeEngage is all about tackling a problem, but it’s also about understanding that these problems can’t be tackled in the span of several weeks. Rather, it allows us to see things that we otherwise miss, problems both in the world itself and in the way that we view it. When we see, we question, and these questions lead to the possibility for answers that we can find as we continue our education and beyond.
As we discussed some of these questions in our last group meeting, one of our group members brought up a good point – while we may question the scale of our impact as teachers, we do know that the personal connections we formed with our students, even for just this brief time period, were genuine. On Tuesday, as we exchanged tearful goodbyes with our students before leaving the Jiguchon School, we felt those connections more keenly than ever. Now, as we refocus our efforts and attention toward our next destination, the Mulmangcho School, we are optimistic about the relationships we can form with those in this new community. But if there’s one thing of which we can be certain, it’s that we’re going to keep questioning – and that’s a good thing.