Dear Future DukeEngager,
Acceptances for DukeEngage Abroad projects have recently been released. Wholehearted congratulations to everyone! (Especially the lucky few selected to participate in the DukeEngage Togo project with Dr. Charles Piot.) Seeing all of the celebratory Facebook updates and hearing the good news from friends has caused me to reflect a lot on my own DukeEngage experience. Specifically, I’ve thought back on what I was feeling around this time last year, and have wondered if, given what I know now, I would change anything about how I prepared to undertake what would be the most difficult, but rewarding, experience of my life so far. Hindsight is of course always 20/20 and there are tons of things I wish I had known or could have done differently while in Togo, but there were five things in particular that I’d like all you future DukeEngagers to reflect on while you still have time. Though your projects may seem far away, it won’t be long before you go through the exciting (but stressful) process of finalizing passports and visas and before the day of departure comes.
TIP #1: Understand the importance of being still.
This first tip is often a hard pill for Duke students to swallow, and I was no exception. Being in a tiny remote village in Northern Togo (which is in West Africa by the way) where the setting of the sun meant my retiring for the day, and where the blazing heat kept me sweating under a gazebo for hours with nothing but a book to read and a deck of cards to play, was a disorienting change from the excessively busy lifestyle that I lead at Duke. For weeks I had to wait for my students to finish their actual classes so that my summer classes could begin, and I was anxious about not having anything to do during this time.
As someone who likes her agenda to be jam-packed, I often feel like I’m not doing enough if I’m not constantly busy. But to think in such a way is to confuse movement with productivity, and the two terms aren’t synonymous. In those weeks of having nothing to do but read, journal, eat, sleep, and repeat, I was able to do some much-needed self-reflection after a hectic freshman year. I caught up on sleep. I watched sunrises and sunsets and sat with my host mom in the sun saying absolutely nothing — and it was amazing.
TIP #2: Localize your experience.
Take your passions, lessons, disappointments, and heartbreaks with you. Zip them up in your suitcase and bring them back to your home. And when it’s time to come back to Duke, pack them up with the belongings for your dorm room. Your “caring about X cause” should not end when your plane lands after the two months have come and gone. Rather, attempt to find related issues that are happening in Durham or in your hometown from the lessons you’ve learned while abroad. From human trafficking to access to adequate health care for poor women – I promise these problems exist at home and that there are ways for you to get involved. If not, carve out your own niche to explore these issues!
TIP #3: Build legitimate relationships (and make an effort to continue those.)
DukeEngage is a temporary civic engagement project — you’ve got a date of arrival and a date of departure that is fixed. However, the relationships that you build, the memories that you will carry, and the legacy that you will leave can be permanent parts of your life if you allow them to be.
For the first month of my project, I was very reluctant to make friends. I spent most of my time outside of the class that I taught with the other Duke students because, in all honestly, I found it pointless to invest in any relationships because I knew that one day I would leave. But I was very unhappy, and that unhappiness stemmed from the fact that I knew my experience in Togo was very superficial and that I wasn’t truly engaged.
Near the tail-end of my time in Togo, I became really close friends with someone my age through my host-mom. We bonded over long conversations about universal topics — our childhoods and our dreams and aspirations — and hung out every day. As the day of departure quickly approached, we were both pretty bummed about being separated. But, we promised to always stay in touch and exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
For the first four months after I returned home, we texted at least once a day and spoke on the phone (briefly, because international calls aren’t cheap) weekly. In the wake of final exams — for both of us — we have decided to email every week until things calm down.
Making the decision to build and continue my friendship with someone on the other side of the world is actually the best decision I’ve made this year. Maintaining healthy relationships with people from DukeEngage is not only a possibility (and if I can do it with someone 5,000 miles away who has little to no internet access, so can you!)
TIP #4: Know your privilege.
You will probably hear this tip often between now and the day you leave. It is self-explanatory but necessary.
Know that, in most places, people will have a hard time saying “no” to you due to the simple fact that your skin color, education, style of dress, and/or language will be saturated with years of privileged history.
Depending on the demographics of your destination (not sure how relevant this is to European D-E projects honestly) you will be linked to Westernization, power, and superiority. Actively, actively, actively attempt to counteract this. Give locals the microphone if they have greater expertise than you. Trust me, they know wayy more about the issues occurring in their home than you do. Learn to listen and learn before you instruct or advise.
TIP #5: Actively engage.
To engage or to be engaged is to be actively involved. This means doing more than just your task or assignment, and is connected to tip #3 about building relationships. For me, active engagement meant having conversations with my students outside of class about things that are important to them, rather than running home right after work. It meant putting the syllabus aside a time or two to allow them to ask me questions about my personal life and American culture more broadly. Sometimes, engaging means separating from your group of fellow Duke students to, for example, go to the market alone for a change. It can be difficult to truly reflect on everything happening if you are always surrounded by other people — especially if those people are the same ones that you boarded the plane with. Active engagement means trying new things and pushing yourself way beyond the borders of your comfort zone. Personally, I had to get over my fears and insecurities about my French. I had to realize that my grammar would never be perfect, but that I would never be able to connect with people if I didn’t take the first step and at least attempt to communicate.
As I’ve said before, your time in the DukeEngage program is fixed, and you only get to participate in this program one time in your undergraduate career. It will be full of ups and downs, and you will make plenty of mistakes (I certainly did). But part of what made my DukeEngage experience so transformative was the conscious decision-making that I made in ensuring that I was being as thoughtful, as open-minded, and as engaged (pun intended) as I possibly could be.
I know that if you keep these five tips in mind throughout next semester as you prepare to embark on your journeys to whichever corner of the earth to do whichever good deed, you will find that your time will be much more meaningful and valuable than just any other old civic engagement trip.
Ebony Hargro, Former DukeEngager