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I feel as though many can relate to the experience of tearing up (snot-crying) at a completely inopportune moment. My graceless moment required a whispered “excuse me for a sec” to my fellow Duke intern, avoiding eye contact with the five to ten Larkin street staff members and countless clients I passed in the hall, making an awkward stumble up seven flights of stairs to the most private bathroom available to me and then, finally, having a good cry. It took many days for me to discern the exact cause of the sudden waterworks. My own misguided, misplaced feelings of perfectionism that had allowed me to excel in many other arenas of my life, had utterly failed me in the field of nonprofit work. During Duke Engage academy we learned how to keep our views in perspective, how to avoid letting the power of doing the right thing lull us into superiority and self-righteousness. I came to San Francisco with the intention of being the humblest Duke Engage participant yet (the irony of that superlative is not lost on me).

What no one could prepare me for during my time here is experiencing the lesser known and seemingly (though maybe falsely so) less pretentious savior complex that can arise from such humility. In my efforts to ensure I never believed I was saving anyone, I told myself I could never and would never do enough to help anyone either. What led to my extreme fall from grace in the bathroom was a culmination of weeks of cognitive dissonance. I told myself I could never do enough to alter a client’s situation, that the privileges I have been granted would never allow me to understand any plight of the youth experiencing homelessness I work with this summer. That I was a completely otherworldly being from some far away land who had travelled countless miles to do what exactly? I am still trying to figure that out.

But every laugh I share with a client, every conversation ranging from the concept of currency to the roots of oppression, every moment that allows me to connect with another human being that I otherwise never would have had is a moment of connection and shared mutual respect of each other’s different experiences neither one of us would have had without DE. My cognitive dissonance arose from saying my presence changed nothing when I could see that it did. I learned once in a social psychology class at Duke that true altruism is a myth. Humans will rarely do anything that does not benefit oneself in some way. In my mind’s attempt to create personal benefit when I didn’t want there to be any, I subconsciously justified my actions in a way that lulled myself into superiority and self righteousness. I believed that if I refused to think my presence made any impact, somehow what I was doing would seem more altruistic and ethical. I was a saint for maintaining some sort of harsh humility. But saying my presence is ineffective negates the strides I have seen clients at Larkin street make as well as the strides I have made within myself these past few weeks.

I broke down from the overwhelming belief that I was not doing enough with my time in San Francisco because I could never be so bold as to attempt to measure what impact I had in providing others opportunities to better their lives. I still believe that claiming I am doing a world of good or creating some social impact is bold on my part. But at this point I am satisfied with focusing less on the amount of good I am or am not doing and focusing more on maximizing the moments of connection that seem to mutually benefit all parties. But I mean… I don’t know. Duke Engage has taught me I never know what I think I know.