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A common criticism of DukeEngage is that some students leave without feeling like they made a large impact. And maybe that goal is a little naïve. Realistically, there is only so much we can accomplish in eight weeks. Instead of expecting to fix a complex issue, what if students came into the program with a different mindset? To use these eight weeks as a peek behind the curtain into the issues that are plaguing our society. To approach each day as an opportunity to listen, observe and learn. I’m not saying that we should lower our expectations and give up on affecting positive change. Simply, we shouldn’t be upset if we can’t point to an accomplishment when the program is over and say (perhaps in a slightly self-serving way), “I did that.” In fact, I think the most effectual change that occurs over the course of this program may manifest itself in us, the students.  I have noticed myself evolving in a variety of ways this summer. In relatively smaller ways, for instance, discovering I enjoy following a vegetarian diet, to larger impacts, such as my shifting career interests.

To give a little background, I am partnered with Metro, the regional government responsible for serving Greater Portland. Among other tasks, I have been working on a research project to discover if the regional government should assume a larger role in addressing the current crisis of people experiencing houselessness  in Portland and if so,  how to most effectively engage with and serve these communities. Currently, the services, advocates, and agencies addressing this issue are organized at the city and county levels. If the regional government were to assume more responsibility in dealing with this issue, it could add an unnecessary level of bureaucracy and produce more inefficiencies. On the other hand, involvement from the regional government could result in a more holistic cross-county approach, where ideas and solutions are shared across geographic boundaries.

An aspect of this research involves meeting with outreach workers, policy advocates and individuals currently experiencing houselessness. Through these engagement efforts I have had the privilege to meet diverse members of the Portland community. I have been moved by a heart-breaking testimony of a social worker struggling to find her clients stable housing, then returning home one day and receiving a no-cause eviction notice from her landlord and ending up on the streets herself. I have seen the empowering work of policy advocates who have fought for two years to get an affordable housing bond on the ballot this November. I have been touched by first-hand testimonies from individuals experiencing houselessness.

These experiences have affected and changed me in ways that I could never have anticipated before arriving to this city. Each week, as my knowledge base grows, I become more impassioned about this issue. One day, my boss made a comment that made me stop and think. As I was emphatically ranting about whatever structural inefficiency had fired me up that day and how not enough was being done to find new and innovative solutions to this complex issue, she noted the passion in my voice and asked me if I had ever considered pursuing a career in advocacy work. Before this summer I hadn’t. But I am now.

As DukeEngage students, we are lucky because we have a built-in support system. I am able to come home to nine other students ready to listen to my frustrations and support me when I feel like I am not doing enough. I am thankful for these students. I am thankful for this summer. I am thankful to be working in a city that I came to care deeply about in only six, short weeks. I am thankful for DukeEngage.