A love letter to Duke Engage Boston: Turning 'sorry' into 'thank you'

There are some connections that we have with certain people and places in our lives that are inexplicable. They carry microscopic missing pieces of our heart that were destined to find us but only when the moment was right. 

Such has been my connection with Boston. At every moment of reckoning in my life, its unique intersection of past and present has called me back. I took my first breaths in Boston, received my first major college acceptance in Boston, and most recently, experienced my first taste of adult independence in Boston. 

 I was no longer the young girl I’d been every other time I had tread its delicate cobblestone pathways and explored its bustling squares. Instead, I had become a young woman.

This transformation was not one engendered merely from crossing the magic age of eighteen but one cultivated by a weighty emptiness carved by the hardships of the last year. 

My freshman year of college was nothing like I’d expected. Being at Duke was a dream come true, but adjusting to life away from home was quite nightmarish at times. I had to learn how to combat scary new physical challenges as my body acclimatized to a new diet while also managing the social and emotional struggles of every student living away from home for the first time. 

Although I emerged from these exhausting battles stronger, I was not unscathed at the end of last year. Fundamental parts of who I was becoming had shifted. Feeling dependent on those around me to care for me while I was sick, I had begun perceiving myself as a burden to them, and I reacted to this shift in self-image by over apologizing. “I’m sorry” became my instinctive reaction to kindness instead of gratitude. I was losing the childlike optimism that I had so adored in myself. As I started feeling like I was unable to trust the world around me, I also gave up believing in myself. 

I had little time to process these feelings after leaving Duke. After enjoying a few days of summer, it was time to go to Boston for my Duke Engage Summer.

As I was walking down the airport escalator to meet the rest of my group, I felt a spark light up in my heart. A voice whispered to me that it would all be okay, that this was the moment I was waiting for. 

That epiphany did not strike immediately, of course. I had a lot of learning to do: not only about navigating a big city after living in small suburbs my whole life, but also about the deep rooted complications of the work that we were doing. While in Boston, we would be advocating for children and families by working with nonprofits to support effective models of addressing issues important to children, families, and communities. But though this mission was crafted with good intentions, it was also saddled with immense complexities: our time in Boston was temporary, but the work our non-profits were engaged in would endure far beyond our last day. We were privileged Duke students coming into spaces that we did not know and more importantly, spaces that did not know us. 

What did it mean for us to work with them for such a brief time? 

What did it mean for us to live in one of the wealthiest areas of town while walking past homeless individuals to get to our dorm? 

What did it mean for us to enjoy the amenities our non-profits offered us – running water, electricity, and a comfortable office space — while many of the people we served had access to few of these resources? 

I never found definitive answers to them, but as I pondered these questions with the rest of my cohort, I began to realize my own insignificance in the lofty goal “of changing the world.” I started understanding that very little, if any, of my work would have a sizable impact on those that I aimed to help. 

If this was true, then that meant something more comforting was too: my personal difficulties could soon become relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of my own life. But if the work we do doesn't matter, then what does?

I discovered the answer to this question through the people I met in Boston.. 

First, was my Duke Engage cohort. All fourteen of us came from different cross-sections of the Duke fabric: some of us were interested in economics and law; others in education; while still others in the intersection of medicine and gender studies. Yet, despite these differences, we shared one fundamental trait: we cared deeply about the world around us, and we wished to do something about it. As our Instagram, the “Boston Baddies,” so poetically states, we were a collection of  “silly goofy wise sketch freaks” who brought together seriousness of purpose and lightness of being.  

Next was my team at 826 Boston, the Duke partner organization that I was working for. Coincidentally, my supervisor was also from Mississippi, and grew up only a few miles away from me. She was the most encouraging first “boss.” While I had always felt that my entire self-worth in professional settings depends on what I can do, she taught me to always feel pride in who I am. It was inspirational to find a role model like her in my first professional experience. 

While not with my cohort or at 826, I would spend time with a family friend on the weekends. I was nervous about this being an imposition to cure my homesickness at first, all my doubts were erased when they took me in as their own daughter. They cared for me in the same way my parents and sister do and filled my heart with love and respect for them that will last a lifetime. 

It was through the acts of kindness and gestures of love from my cohort, my supervisor, and my family friends that my quandary was resolved: what matters is how we make other people feel. 

This lesson was further ingrained in my conscience by their son and the people whom I met through him. Although his world was totally different from my Southern small town, he and his friends took me in, never once treating me like a stranger. While in their company, I learned to laugh at myself. 

Collectively, all of these people, with every kind word they uttered, with every joke they told, and with every gesture of warmth they extended, restored my inner calm. The light shining from memories I made with them helped me see the world like I used to again: for what it could be, instead of what it is. 

It feels strange to know that Boston can never fathom the impact it has had on me — that while I was a fleeting presence in the lives of those I encountered there, they have left an indelible mark on mine. 

But how beautiful is it that sometimes strange places can soothe us in ways those familiar to us cannot? How beautiful is it that sometimes the most special connections we form are with the people we meet along the way, unexpectedly, but who change us permanently? How beautiful is it that kindness and love can transform friends into family?

My freshman year tendency to over apologize for acts of compassion that I experienced seeped into my Boston experience. As a stranger in a new city, I often experienced the hospitality of others, ranging from strangers on the street who helped me find the correct train to my family friends, who showered me with immense kindness and love, and my supervisor, who patiently worked with me as I learned the ropes of a new job. 

Instinctively, “I’m sorry” would burble at my lips. But when a new friend pointed out the frequency with which I used that phrase, I realized that while I felt I was being polite, I was actually apologizing for the kindness people showed me instead of appreciating it. 

So, let me take this moment to say what I should have said instead to Boston and its people and its places and the beautiful memories it has given me.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Advikaa Anand is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternating Thursdays.

Advikaa Anand | Opinion Managing Editor

Advikaa Anand is a Trinity sophomore and an opinion managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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