Coming up on the last week of the program creates a mix of emotions. I’m relieved, excited, and glad, but at the same time my memories of this program leave me with a twinge of sadness and regret and an overarching question of whether I actually fulfilled the purpose of this program.
Although I undoubtedly valued my experience in DC, I can’t help but think that value was derived out of creating friendships, exploring career paths, and going to fun places. The actual part where we engaged with the community seems to have fallen out of the equation somewhere along the way. I mean, due to the nature of the program, we always tried to draw a link to civic engagement whenever we had reflections or discussions about our events or jobs. But the connections seemed tenuous at best and we just accepted it for the sake of convenience. To me, it always just felt like a program where we got internships and reflected on societal problems during every discussion (which has it’s own value, but doesn’t feel like it necessarily belongs in DukeEngage)
But this past Saturday, we were able to go volunteer at a food bank and participate in what I consider one of our only real engagement opportunities. From around 8:30 until noon, we helped DC residents from all around the area get fresh produce. The people I saw started lining up before I even arrived at the location, for food that wouldn’t be given out for hours–by some accounts, people were camping out overnight. The most striking thing about the entire morning was the sense of community that I felt and saw. Despite coming from diverse backgrounds and cultures, the people looked out for each other. They wanted to bring back food for neighbors and made sure the other people in the line were being taken care of. I think the most striking example of this was a woman who, worrying that other people in the line were being ignored during the registration process, not only brought me to the back of the line to help, but took the initiative to ask people herself if they were registered or not.
Seeing the cohesiveness of the community in spite of language and cultural barriers gave me some hope that no matter how dire things might get, there’s always going to be people who see the underlying commonalities between everyone. And in that cohesiveness, there remains a welcoming smile for those outside of the community. While waiting for hours in the grueling heat, I met people who greeted me with a warm smile and thanked me for doing something as simple as giving them water. Those reactions are what make engagement like that so fulfilling to me. No matter how few and far between it may be, the gratitude that people showed me made my day and reminded me what the ultimate goal of engagement is–helping real people with real problems and making their lives just that much better.
So, does the DC program have a place in DukeEngage? I don’t know. People have made connections to civic engagement and if it works for them. In so far as the program is mostly for personal growth, then some would say it belongs in DukeEngage. But is the program valuable and worth it? Undoubtedly, yes. Our discussions and the internship were great opportunities that made me think about my perspectives and the narratives I believe in, but the times when we really connected with the DC community are the times that made this program worthwhile. Whether it was the community dinner, the drum circle, or volunteering at the food bank, I have remembered (and to some degree, realized) what it really means to engage and why it’s a standard that I will hold myself to from now on.