Hi. My name is Connor, and about a year and a half ago I got in way over my head. A girl I was pretty interested in had just gotten back from doing global health research in Togo and had this kind of crazy idea of going back to the community where she had lived for two months to build a computer learning center. She wanted it to be an incentive to keep teenagers from migrating to plantations and cities and away from their families. It was a great idea, but there were some slight issues—like the fact that the community in question, Farendé, Togo, had no electricity and no power lines anywhere near it.
So, what did I do? Told her I could network all of the computers, connect them to the Internet and power them using renewable energy. It might have been a slight exaggeration of my existing skill set. … I had set up my family’s Wi-Fi and done a high school project on solar panels, but I didn’t exactly have an overwhelming amount of experience when it came to information and energy technology in rural, low-income areas.
Jumping forward to today, the village has that computer center. Not only did we build it, but we also gave it enough electricity to charge hundreds of cell phones a day and the fastest Internet connection in the country outside the capital city. How did we do it? Well to be honest, it was mostly Wikipedia, Amazon and a whole lot of luck.
But a large part of it also had to do with admitting what we didn’t know. The project would have been a disaster if we hadn’t admitted to each other early on that we had no idea what we were doing. Our answers to how we would solve the problems we were facing had to change pretty much every day. Not only did we not know the answers, a lot of times we didn’t even know the problems.
With that in mind, I still had to believe in myself. As a 20-year-old college student embarking on an international service trip, people’s hopes for my success were not exactly high. A sales attendant at Home Depot refused to sell me a fuse box because he thought I was going to burn a building down. My family doctor told me that it was hopeless to try and change anything in “the third world.” My mom tried to stop me from going because she was afraid I wouldn’t come back in one piece. I had varying degrees of respect and care for all of these people, but to a certain degree I still disregarded what they told me.
It’s a fine line to walk between believing in yourself and becoming so arrogant that you miss seeing the signs of your own shortcomings.
Living in Farendé was a hard lesson on what can happen when projects are carried out when people think they have all the answers. Western, Eastern and regional organizations that came with a goal in mind ignored some aspect of the local context. They thought they already had things figured out and established their projects only to watch as their efforts stalled and eventually failed. The signs of failed development efforts were everywhere you looked.
We are students at an elite university, and we’ve all earned our place here. We are capable of accomplishing great things, but we are still capable of falling flat on our faces. With our project only seven months off the ground it’s too early to tell which one we’ve done, but I’m really hoping for the first. My point is to tell you that you should believe in yourself, that you are capable of amazing things and that you have an amazing future ahead of you if you choose it.
However, I also want to ask you to be careful. Remember that we do not have all the answers. We learn a lot of things here at Duke, but we don’t learn everything—and the things that we don’t learn here we might learn from people we least expect. Balance the faith you have in yourself with a good dose of humility. I ignored the sales attendant at Home Depot, but listened to the sales attendant at Lowes when he told me a way to attach light switches to a cement wall that I would have never figured out on my own.
The culture of competition we have at Duke drives us to be better than we would be otherwise, but it also pressures us to hide our imperfections from others. We pretend to be better than we are because we don’t want others to see our flaws, but we deserve to be here, flaws included. If we balance believing in ourselves, accepting our flaws and reaching out to each other for help, just think of what we could accomplish.
Connor Cotton, Pratt ’14, is the student director for service for the Duke Catholic Center. This column is the third installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by dPS members addressing the importance of social action, as told through personal narratives. You can follow dPS on Twitter @dukePS.