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In the first handful of weeks here, everything felt ideal. I felt like I was looking through a pair of rose-tinted glasses, a perfect metaphor for my initial experience of the “Rose City.” I talked about this feeling in my very first blog. But just as everything can seem rosy, its thorns can also pack a punch.

In the spirit of comprehensively reflecting on my experiences here from donuts to microaggression, I want to apply an exercise called “Rose, Bud, Thorn.” (Disclaimer: this post centers around my own experience of the city, and not necessarily other DukeEngagers’ experiences nor the city itself.)


First, we start with the highlights. Roses are things that went swimmingly, the experiences that blossomed with success, contentment, and happiness.

Seeing actual roses everywhere

Whether growing along the streets, in the International Rose Test Garden, engraved on manhole covers, or etched in the glass of bus stop booths, I was graced with roses most everywhere in the city. It reminded me to feel grateful of this experience and to stop to smell the roses.

Rose from International Rose Test Garden
Rose from International Rose Test Garden
"Little Artist" rose from International Rose Garden
“Little Artist” rose from International Rose Garden
  • Finding spaces where I feel joy

Top Two on my list are:

  1. Powell’s Bookstore, especially the third floor window-facing bench in the “Architecture” corner, my to-go spot for when I want to read in peace.
  2. Portland Art Museum. I appreciated the variety of media and artists represented in its exhibits. I was especially excited to see a solo exhibit of a Korean-American artist, Steven Young Lee, and see my heritage reflected on a respected platform.
  • Access to nature

From hiking trails to public parks, I loved the large scale of access to and number of diverse green spaces incorporated in the urban environment. Having a well-equipped public transit system definitely helps to feel like I could just up and go, whenever I wanted to.

  • Seeing cool things I’ve never seen before

Like these wave-like clouds when we looked up,

Interesting wave-like clouds in the sky

or tiny statues as public art.

a miniature sculpture, feat. my hand for scale
a miniature sculpture, feat. my hand for scale
  • My placement

I’ve had an absolutely amazing time at my workplace, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon. I feel so grateful that I get to work with the people who make up such a change-making, movement-building organization.

  • Eating well

My limited cooking skills have not failed me in eating well here. Portland definitely has eating options for every mood and budget (Note for future participants: take advantage of cheap eats from food trucks!). Plus, whenever I missed home-cooked Korean food, I could easily grab a bite at nearby Korean restaurants.

Korean food!
Korean food!


Buds are notes for anything future-oriented, whether it be areas for growth or things that I look forward to blossoming.

  • Coming back

Is it too soon to have decided that I want to come back to live in Portland after graduation? When/if I do, I look forward reconnecting with my community partner, where my coworkers have joked about telling me to transfer to PSU to come work for them. 🙂

  • Being on tourist mode 24/7

I always struggle with this, and it is an area for a lot of growth. Anytime that I’m at a new place, I feel the pressure of maximizing my time. I try to do everything and get frustrated at myself for not checking off everything on my list. I’m learning to tell myself to take a breath, and that it’s okay that I haven’t gone down every street of Portland or tried every wacky flavor at Salt and Straw by the time I leave. Sometimes, it’s just as rewarding and fulfilling to take a lazy day in.

  • My somewhat unhealthy habits in fulfilling my sweet tooth

The ice cream and donuts themselves deserve to be “roses,” but my relationship with them is an area for growth. Also, I don’t have pictures of them, because I devour them before I think to document. Oops.

But here’s my take on Portland’s donuts, based comprehensively on quality, accessibility, and arbitrarily formed bias: Blue Star Donuts > Coco Donuts > Sesame Donuts > Voodoo Doughnut. Hot take: Voodoo is overhyped, the line is too long, the dough is not nearly as good as other options. (Pst! A tip to future program participants about Sesame Donuts… if you go just before closing at the one on PSU’s campus, you could try your luck to score steeply discounted donuts. It’s also conveniently 5-ish minutes of a walk away from the dorms. You’re welcome.)

  • Self-respect

I have a lot of room to grow in learning to respect my own boundaries, saying no, and taking time off for myself as an introvert.


Thorns refer to the pain points in the process and things that didn’t go too well. Some thorns can overlap with buds, as it is meant to create room for constructive criticism.

  • The double-verification for Duke’s log-in expiring every three days

It’s nice to feel security about accessing your inbox, but it also feels nice to be remembered for more than 72 hours.

  • Feeling disconnected

I have been overwhelmed with an array of extreme emotions in my time here—both negative and positive. Because I didn’t know how to healthily handle the entire range, I was not in touch with the thornier emotions a lot of the times. I pushed away feeling homesick and lonely in a new city. Because it felt good to be complimented that I’m positive and have good energy, I would be aware of myself if I didn’t have a smile on my face in the office, not that anyone (except myself) gave reason for me to feel that way. It turns out being amped up on “Positive Vibes Only” for weeks doesn’t fly for your mental health.

  • This is a (relatively) short-time gig

Eight weeks is an awkward time. It’s long enough to settle into a routine, but short enough to be frequently aware of my imminent departure. Long enough to not need Google Maps to commute to work, but short enough to be aware of what things or relationships I couldn’t carry back home. Long enough to get to know people, but too short to form deep relationships to sustain after this time. Long enough to start pruning the wilty office plants, but short enough to ask myself, “Should I get a succulent for my desk?” I just don’t know.

  • “Effortless perfection” tagged along uninvited

I wanted to perform well at my tasks and achieve near perfection. I also wanted to have a good time here. I also wanted to look good for the photos to share with my friends and family.

I found myself stressing over little things or staying at work later than called for, being hyper-aware of whether I was fitting into the office culture, starting to count calories, and signing myself up for a half-marathon to force myself onto a workout plan. I was surprised to feel this pressure, which I too-often experience on Duke’s campus, on the other side of the continent. Effortless perfection seems to be a wide-spread issue for Duke students, both on- and off-campus. I wanted to address it as a pain point I felt, as well as probably many fellow DukeEngage students across the globe this summer. I wonder how different our experiences could be if we are told more often—in our school, communities, and workplaces—that we are enough as we are.

  • Experiencing microaggression

On the bus after work, I noticed a white man (there are a lot of them here in Oregon) at the front of the bus who kept turning around from his seat, every minute or so, to look somewhere toward the back of the bus. He then clambered to the back, to occupy the seat directly in front of me. He continued swiveling, more frequently, now clear that he was turning to look at me. He finally blurted at me, “are you Chinese or Japanese?” My jaw tightened. Really? In 2019 Portland?! I responded, as stoically as I could, “Neither.” I hoped he could feel my cold stare through my tinted black sunglasses.

This thorn could have pierced deeper, but it only pricked the surface of a callous thickened since childhood (thank you, suburban Virginia). And that’s what pains me more—the weight of this callous that I forget I carry in order to stomach regular microaggression. Oof.

In Summary…

I tried to be frank and direct with my experiences and emotions here. I hope that this was a good glimpse to understand my experience in Portland so far, of both the highlights and the lowlights. Not everything went smoothly, and I appreciate what I learned in the process. Each Rose, Bud, and Thorn allowed me to grow in unique ways that no other city could have provided in the same way.