Wherever we are, whether it’s DukeEngage Cape Town, Thailand, Orange County, or — like me — Boston, we have been asked this question. When we involve ourselves in any kind of immersive service, through a program like DukeEngage or another, we have to be prepared to explain our presence, and our reasons for spending time in the communities we temporarily join.
Reaching the halfway point of our program in Boston means that I have tuned my answer to near robotic precision. “I am interning with Raising a Reader Massachusetts, a non-profit early literacy program that works to provide quality books and developmental reading strategies to the underserved children and families of the Greater Boston Area.” This is the automatic response, and the easiest one.
I have been wondering about that question, about why I am actually here, and it is never as simple or as innocent as an explanation of the work I am doing in the RAR-MA office that is two blocks down from our dorms alongside the Boston Common. Beyond the actual concrete projects with our respective non-profit organizations, there are curiosities, passions, or other categorical motives that brought us here. While I cannot speak for my peers, I know that I have been struggling to pinpoint what those are for me. Perhaps it was a desire to test the waters of the non-profit world, and maybe it was in search of the authentic joy that accompanies serving others, or it could be that this was the easiest way that I could further put off figuring out who I am and what it is that moves me.
Finding my own individual answer to the “why” so that I can better orient myself to the person I may become, is a selfish act, but I would like to strip the negative connotation from the word, “selfish.” We were told at the very beginning of our DukeEngage ventures, implored even, to be selfish this summer. The most effective of those who are dedicated to their communities are those who know where their greatest concerns lie, and what drives them. I want to better define what that is for me, so that I can find the field in which I can be most effective.
I have been greatly surprised by the incredible amount of organization, research, and community assistance it takes to run a non-profit organization. Most of what the Raising a Reader interns do is in the office, but my coworkers are in and out all day, picking up book donations, meeting with community partners, attending conferences, having board meetings, or running public events. To me, the statistic of children below reading-level in Massachusetts sometimes seems to great to even make a difference, but because these women (the RAR-MA staff consists only of females) care so deeply for the cause and for the difference an earlier exposure to quality books can make in a child’s future success, they keep going. I find that so purely admirable.
I understand and uphold the value of early childhood literacy, however the work environment of a non-profit may not be where I can best utilize my own interpersonal and intellectual skills to make the greatest possible difference. In the future, when I am in the midst of my own work and my own career, I want to be able to tell whoever asks me that the reason I am there is because I know who I am, what I care about, and how I can best serve others.