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Reconsider domestic DukeEngage

It’s that time of year again. Basketball season is beginning, leaves are changing color and Starbucks is offering Pumpkin Spice Lattes. When not Instagramming these annual rites of passage, or at least experiencing them, us Duke students are dead-set on what will come to pass during an entirely different season—summer. With eRecruiting already showcasing internships in fields ranging from social media management to tobacco plant breeding, opportunities abound for students looking to prepare themselves for the future, earn some money or avoid spending three consecutive months at home. Of course, those desiring a more classically Duke experience can always get engaged.

I speak of engagement not in the on-one-knee, diamond ring-clutching sense, but in the spirit of the “get engaged!” double entendre-crested T-shirts given to DukeEngage participants. Aided by a $30 million fund courtesy of the Duke Endowment and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the program has given thousands of students, including 425 this past summer, the opportunity to take part in long-term, immersive service experiences in locations across the globe. With 39 formal programs and the option available for participants to propose their own, DukeEngage projects provide us with a door to the world, be it a faraway country or a neighboring state.

Unfortunately, however, faraway countries seem to be much more appealing destinations to DukeEngage-d students than neighboring states. When DukeEngage international program decisions were released the December of my first year, I watched those who were rejected from their first choices weigh the pros and cons of applying for a domestic program—their deadline is, strategically, two months later than that of international program—and throwing in the towel in hopes of better luck and a better application the next year. All too often, people chose the second option, often without truly considering the first.

Though rejection can hurt—my submission to the first resume drop of the recruiting season did not even merit a “thank you for your interest" stock response, leading to hours of angst and bullet-point tweaking on my part—I believe disappointment is not the sole cause of people’s choice not to re-enter the DukeEngage application portal until it is Pumpkin Spice Latte season once more. “I don't know, why would I want to go to western North Carolina or someplace like that? I just feel like I’d have a much richer experience by going abroad,” I’ve heard many a time as the January domestic project deadline came and went. The evidence is more than anecdotal; according to an August 2013 Chronicle article, only one independent project took place in the U.S., and multiple sources claim that attracting applicants was a regular problem for directors of domestic programs. As someone who has taken part in long-term civic engagement work both here in the United States and abroad, I know well the allure and benefits of international service but nonetheless believe it is by no means inherently superior to work done domestically.

This past summer I took advantage of a generous grant and spent as much as possible on airfare to faraway Cape Town, South Africa, where I worked for an incubator for social ventures. I witnessed poverty on an unimaginable scale, collaborated with people hailing from four continents and sent Snapchats from atop Table Mountain. I experienced being the only white person in the room for the first time and learned how to live with a family with wholly different beliefs and cultural norms. I spent an embarrassing amount of time frantically emailing my parents in search of advice, but I made it out alive as a reasonably more self-aware person than I had been eight weeks earlier. My time abroad, even in a country where English is the "lingua franca," challenged me far more than I had ever imagined.

One year previously, however, I had lived and worked in a decidedly unglamorous locale—Horry County, South Carolina. Thirty minutes from Myrtle Beach, 10 from a quiet commercial district and 180 from my hometown, it was a far cry from the exotic locales to where my friends taking part in international DukeEngage programs were traveling. I still managed to struggle and grow, however—I worked with people whose Southern and Gullah Geechee heritages were like nothing I had ever seen. I helped to curate a local museum’s first exhibit on African-American history and pondered my right to do so as a white person working temporarily in a county home to 45,000 black residents. In hindsight and after the lessons of my domestic internship, I should have known working abroad would not be a walk in the park.

Looking back on these two experiences, I may have packed my American flag t-shirt for the journey and kept my Verizon SIM card when traveling to South Carolina, but simply being close to home did not make me feel at all deprived of access to the cultural differences and meaningful service work that we seek when going abroad. Realizing this is far from intuitive, but admitting it can allow us to see past the allure of long-haul flights and alien landscapes and realize that, in the end, service, with all its dicey group dynamics and less-than-occasional teachable moments, is service. No matter where it takes place.

Tom Vosburgh is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday.


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