Skip to main content

When I decided to apply for a DukeEngage program in Orange County, California, I got the same response from almost everyone — “what would you even do there?” — combined with genuine confusion that I wanted to spend a summer of service stationed in one of the wealthiest parts of the country.

I would then go on to explain that this particular program focused on empowering young girls through STEM education and other leadership programming, and that many of the girls that attended this summer camp were not from wealthy families in the area. “Girls trying to learn STEM are disadvantaged everywhere,” I would try and justify to myself and others when defending the funding of seven students for two months to one of the seemingly wealthiest parts of this country under the name of service.

Leaving the airport the big red van that our advisors now drive us everywhere in picked us up, and we headed back to the dorms. I saw palm trees on the way, beautiful malls and shopping plazas, and the affluence I had expected, but after less than half a week of residing here I learned that all was not what it seemed in sunny southern California, and that this notoriously wealthy area faced complex social issues.

We sat down at the Orange County United Way office and listened to multiple nonprofits from the area attest to the need that is present here. Second Harvest spoke about the large percentage of individuals, families, and students in the county who face food insecurity, Mercy House explained the extremely high instances of homelessness due to the rent costs here (an average home is over $150,000 and a one bedroom apartment is almost $2,000 a month), the United Way showed us their organization’s progress on their goals for 2024 which included reducing the high school drop out rate, lowering the number of financially unstable families, promoting healthier lifestyles for their children and cutting homelessness in half.

Other organizations spoke addressing the local domestic violence and child and family homelessness, but there was one thing that ALL of these organizations had in common: a main focus was getting people in Orange County to realize that these issues exist.

In fact, it’s easy for the majority of the county to dismiss these prominent issues in the community when the evidence has in large been dumped, literally, into a few cities. For example, police in wealthy southern OC have driven around and picked up homeless people and moved them to Costa Mesa and mainly Santa Ana, where the riverbed has had over 1,000 tents set up at times. These cities also have some the highest minority presence in the county.

This not-in-my-backyard approach to dealing with the most disadvantaged members of the population has led to the wealthy stereotype that the county gets and creates stark contrasts between the cities that comprise this county. I am just thankful I got to learn about this so soon during my eight weeks here, or else I would have been another one of the misinformed people driving to and from work looking at the palm trees, pristine beaches, and trendy stores admiring the wealth around me.