The morning routine continues. Scared of being “that guy” and showing up late, you glance at the time as you power walk among the masses. Shiny metal doors open. You step in, bracing yourself to be whizzed away towards your final destination. After noticing a handful of individuals in suits, you eye your coffee warily while imagining all the potential wardrobe faux paus you are committing. You do a little jig as your headphones blast the song “Africa.” Suddenly, the shiny doors open again. You step out, gazing ahead only to come eye-to-eye with the only sight that reminds your delirious self where you’re going, what you’re doing and, perhaps at a more existential level, why you’re here: the Chapel.
Sound like the typical freshman commute? That’s what I keep thinking, or wishing. See, those shiny doors aren’t the sacred gates that greet winners of those Darwinian contests to board the C-1. They’re big steel elevators. The folks in suits? Those aren’t RAs on their way to Wall Street interviews, they’re probably consultants for the Department of Homeland Security. Let’s be real, the Toto soundtrack is the same. And the Chapel? It’s boxed in by a frame, hung beyond a set of glass-pane double doors scripted with little white lettering that reads “Suite 1110: Duke University.”
Welcome to 1201 New York Ave., more specifically the 11th floor, located just a stone’s throw from the White House and every other iconic building that you’ll see memorialized in Sanford somewhere. It’s home to my workplace, the nonprofit health advocacy group Families USA and, as you might have guessed, “Duke in Washington, D.C.”
This weird moment of pseudo-déjà vu has occurred each day for the last month. Every instance forces me to confront a curious juxtaposition. To my left, I see buildings, quads and people that defined my recent life, those glass doors serving as a window into the person I was up until four months ago. To my right, I see colleagues, policy reports and an encased copy of the Affordable Care Act signed and addressed to our office by rockstar politicians, these glass doors signaling my first step towards becoming the person I will be.
In some ways, it’s fitting. I always knew I’d end up here in Washington. It’s one of those places where no matter how far I tried to run away, I couldn’t help but run towards it. Similar to medicine, the policy world is comprised of a community where those motivated by the noble ideal of service can suffer from, or be burned out by, the presence of ego, competition and ambition. My first exposure to the city a few years ago had a toxic effect. I was turned off by gridlock, unable to embrace a culture centered on the assumption that spin trumped substance. My time at Duke, however, overlapped with a momentous conversation on my pet issue: access to health care. Suddenly, folks in Washington (sort of) came together and accomplished something pretty significant. Did I judge them too soon?
So here I am. Right now, I’m learning how professional advocacy works while also training to join a nationwide grassroots effort to enroll individuals in health insurance over the next six months. It’s exciting; in this historic moment, I’m compelled to contribute in any way I can. At the same time, in the back of my mind, the gears are still turning. Given that I’ve only been here a month, there’s not much I can report definitively. Questions still abound. I don’t know if I’m cut out for a career in this town. I’m not quite sure how to reconcile being a physician with public service, nor do I know if this is the field that I want to become an “expert” in. Honestly, at this point, I’m just trying to find a place where I can get lunch cheaper than $5.
Here’s what I do know: Somehow, I’m more prepared to confront these questions and the vintage, post-grad existential angst than I ever thought I would be. It’s not because Duke gave me access to a professional and social network; rather, it has something to do with my actual development these last four years.
One of my favorite professors at Duke always expounded on the virtues of “moral courage,” meaning, in my view, the capacity to ask oneself the tough questions, to hold oneself accountable and to strive for internal consistency. It’s more relevant than ever. In a city where everyone’s favorite sport is “political football,” it’s easy to lose sight of what you stand for. Reflecting back, I can’t help but think that somewhere along the way at Duke—through all the knowledge and uncertainty, the triumphs and tragedies, the failed and formative relationships—I gained a bit more moral courage. In this period of my life defined by transition, it’s nice to be reminded of that as the shiny doors open every single day.
Sanjay Kishore, Trinity ’13, is a policy fellow at Families USA in Washington, D.C. This column is the third installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written on the gap year experience, as well as the diverse ways Duke graduates can pursue and engage with the field of medicine outside the classroom. Send the “gap year-ers” a message on Twitter @MindTheGapDuke.