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Do Duke students live a limited version of the human experience?

Disclaimer: All names have been changed for reasons of confidentiality.

[ring, ring]

Man: “Hello?”

Me: “Uh, hi, may I speak with Ms. Smith?”

Man: “Who’s calling?”

Me: “My name’s Stephanie and I’m calling on behalf of the Wiley Nickel campaign for North Carolina Senate.  He’s a Democrat running to be your next state senator for District 16.”

Man: “Okay, yeah. Well, the thing is, my mom, Ms. Smith, she was just diagnosed with cancer today.  So, I don’t think she really wants to be talking to anyone right now.”

Me: [silence]

For the past four months, I’ve been working as a Field Organizer for grassroots campaign in North Carolina.  Before I started this new job, I wasn’t really sure what to expect out of campaign work. As a Political Science major, I figured it would be valuable work experience and decided to give it a try.  

What I’ve learned is that campaign work is more than just campaign work. It involves a lot of talking to a lot of different people. During the week, I’ll usually phonebank for 3-4 hours, and canvas (door-to-door knocking) on both Saturday and Sunday.  I’d estimate that in an average week, I talk to around 300 different people through the campaign alone.  

Sometimes the conversations are boring and repetitive. Other times, I’ll have an engaged discussion with someone about some political issue they’re really passionate about. In every interaction, I have a small, two-minute glimpse into a stranger’s life.

In the case of Ms. Smith, I called and found out from her son that she’d just been diagnosed with cancer. I don’t know these people, but I can imagine that the date I happened to call on will remain a day of significance for them for the rest of their lives. I’d simply poked my head in and was part of their experience that day, for just a brief moment in time. For that minute, I became privy to a significant moment in a stranger’s life that I had not been acquainted with before—one that made my own everyday life seem small.

During another day that I was canvassing, an older man answered the front door when I knocked. My list indicated that a Mr. and Mrs. Johnson lived there. When I started my campaign spiel and asked if he, Mr. Johnson, would be voting in the Democratic primary this year, he responded that his wife, Mrs. Johnson, had just passed away that week. He was amidst funeral preparations at the moment. I marked Mrs. Johnson as “deceased” in the campaign system. The contrast between our two situations struck me: here I was going door-to-door repeating the name Wiley Nickel, while this man was reeling from the death of a loved one. It seemed surreal that we would meet face to face under such differing circumstances.

Campaigning is not always depressing, though.  During another day of canvassing, the first house I visited belonged to a woman who, after a few minutes of conversation, told me that she was an attorney who represented inmates. She said she worked for a nonprofit that investigated innocence claims. I asked if she’d ever read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, which she had. This led us into an even longer conversation during which we shared our views about how poverty disproportionately determines how someone is treated within the justice system.  It was amazing that behind a random door in a random neighborhood, there lived this woman with whom I shared a common interest and passion.  Even more amazing was that we both found it valuable to take these 10 minutes out of our respective days to talk and build a brief connection with each other.

One day while phone banking, I had a 20-minute conversation with a very educated woman who, by the end of the call, had practically convinced me that capitalism is outdated and the root cause of all societal problems. She’d also given me some great recommendations for journalists work’ that I might be interested in reading.

Or there was the man in his twenties who answered the door with an adorable golden retriever by his side. I commented on the cuteness of his dog (and I don’t even like animals), to which he said, “Ready?” and opened the door wider to show me the dog’s tail, which was dyed rainbow colors.  He explained that he’d taken the dog to a groomer to get it professionally done.

I’ve experienced amazing kindness from complete strangers.  Some have invited me into their homes (which I’ve only accepted twice and both for good reason; sorry, Mom, if you’re reading this).  Others have offered me snacks or a bottle of water.  Many have made an effort to thank me for the “work I’m doing.”

Working on this campaign, I’ve witnessed much more of the human experience than I think I ever had in life before. I’ve met people at unbelievably diverse stages in their lives—from the tragic, to the happy, to the simply bizarre—and for a brief moment, engaged with them at those distinct and meaningful points. I think I used to view the “general public” as a faceless mass, where people and their lives merely blurred into one another. I’ve learned very quickly, however, that the “public” is actually a collection of diverse individuals with different views, beliefs and experiences. I truly am always surprised by how a day working on the campaign continues to surprise me.

Maybe all this seems obvious to you. But for me, engaging with so many different people as a result of this experience pushes me to acknowledge that I’ve only been exposed to an extremely small portion of the human experience in my own life.  As Duke students, our lives beat to a similar rhythm: tests, homework, parties, the fake nuggets from Sprout and so on. It can feel tiring and strangely monotonous at the same time. Call me naive, but sometimes I forget that the Duke bubble is not representative of life in the real world—even as I seek to actively remind myself of this. Briefly witnessing so many people’s lives at so many different points, the good and the bad, has brought me an unexpected breath of fresh air. Behind each door I knock on is a human with feelings, with with an opinion, with something new and different to offer the world. 

On campus, we interact with an array of 18-22 year olds; we talk about our classes, the parties we attend and our plans for the summer. But the world is so much more than the range of experiences that can be found on Duke’s campus. What each of us experiences individually is minuscule when compared to the human experience—which is limitless, infinite and varied. 

Stephanie Mayle is a Trinity sophomore. Her column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.

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