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I heard so much about DukeEngage before applying. “It’s life changing,” everyone would say, and then continue on to talk about how their experiences had changed them as a person through what they learned. My expectations for the program had been high, but not everything goes as expected.

I never imagined that in the short time since beginning my internship at Larkin Street Youth Services I would have already become “shook,” as many of the youth say to describe a state of shock. In this time, I have had the opportunity to interact with youth who have no home security, and had little control of the circumstances that caused that. Out of all of the interactions I have had with the clients here, there is one that particularly stands out to me: my first GED tutoring session.

The tutoring session began exactly as expected – with a short introduction of ourselves and some awkward tension while straightforwardly working through adding fractions. Although work started pretty slowly, the client had soon worked their way through three different topics within an hour! As time continued, the tension had decreased through talking about basketball and the horribly drawn pizzas I used to represent each fraction, but I noticed that the student had been drifting off frequently and losing focus. Suddenly, one of the times the client was counting on their fingers, they stopped and began to zone out; however, this time they spoke.

“Can I tell you something?”

Of course, I told the student that they could tell me anything (although I’m a mandated reporter).

“You know, man, I missed passing the exam by three points.”

At this point my heart broke for the student. They had missed passing their GED test and moving to the next stage of their life by only three points. Although many would have given up at this point, there was something driving this client to succeed, and they had plans for this GED. I had to figure out what the plans were, so I asked. They explained to me that they traveled across the entire country to do this because they had heard of this program, and that they really wanted to go back home, use the GED to enroll in the Navy, and then go to college after serving.

Three points separated this client from a more secure life – from taking the next step toward achieving their goals, but not even the entire length of the country can stop them from closing that gap. Meanwhile, throughout high school, I witnessed dozens of students who flunked out by choice – who failed to realize the opportunities they had that many others, even in our own country, are not fortunate enough to have. These students had the support of their entire community trying to get them on track, but did not accept the gift they had been given. There are people, like this client, who had no community or support and had to travel all the way across the country and live on the street or in shelters to try to find it. What could this client and other clients have contributed to society if they had the same opportunities as the other students who chose not to take them?

Before coming to this program, I had little experience with the homeless, and I knew even less about them. The way that the homeless have been portrayed throughout this country have caused many to turn a blind-eye to them, as can be seen by the client having to travel across the country to find a program like Larkin’s. We avoid eye contact, don’t talk to them, and don’t even give them a chance. This program has given me the privilege of getting to know them as capable people who still want to offer something to a society that has wronged them; people who have been trying, but have simply been less fortunate and started with less than others.

The client continued to drift off throughout the remainder of the session, looking forward to the future.

“There’s going to be someone up in my face like, ‘Do you understand me, maggot?’”

“You’re dang right there will be,” I replied.

“I don’t even know how to swim, yet,” he laughed.

For some reason, I feel like this will be the least of the challenges that he has faced.