If you asked me whether I learned any life-changing skills or lessons during my DukeEngage experience, my first instinct would be to say no. My internship this summer did not teach me how to analyze data, conduct research, or perform technical skills. My volunteer work at my NGO didn’t change lives in concrete or moving ways. But if you asked me whether or not I am the same person as I was at the beginning of the summer, my answer would also be no.
Even though I have very little to show from the work I did at the District Six Museum, I believe that my DukeEngage summer gave me so much more than the typical summer internship experience. I learned extensively and deeply about the history, politics, and problems of South Africa not only through books, museums, and the wisdom of my on-site professors, but also through tangible figures who helped change the course of history through their courageous efforts. This intensive knowledge background prepared me tremendously for the remainder of my time here and was vital to my current understanding of South Africa and its people.
The other lessons I learned were a product of my experiences at the District Six Museum and from living day-to-day life in Cape Town. Navigating cultural differences such as working styles and communication expectations was often challenging and revealed the more unglamorous angle of cultural exchange. My obsession with planning was often brushed to the side, as unpredictable circumstances forced me to be flexible under pressure. As much of my work at the museum involved organizing and facilitating workshops for large groups of children interested in human rights, I was also able to walk in the shoes of a teacher. These moments compelled me to be patient and understand the value of compromise. They also convinced me that being an educator is quite possibly the most difficult and simultaneously crucial jobs on earth.
Compromise and patience proved to be equally important outside of my internship. Living in close quarters with ten other Duke students was like living college life under a microscope. I did not know a single person in the group before this trip and was intensely nervous about how we would all get along, considering we spent every waking minute together. Although we often engaged socially with local South Africans, the vast majority of our time was spent with each other. This made cooperation and a positive group dynamic essential to the experience overall. I am beyond grateful for the group I spent the summer with because we all learned how to appreciate compromise and the value of making decisions that benefited the group as a whole. I will be leaving Cape Town with some true friends.
As for whether I made a difference here? That is the toughest question to answer. Sometimes I found my efforts at work futile—often the children we worked with were difficult to manage and made actual knowledge transmission and intellectual discussion challenging. The office work that we did at the museum wasn’t exactly inspirational. However, in small ways I think my colleagues and I did have impact. Through our Night at the Museum event we provided a safe space for primary school children to learn about human rights and conflict. Even though they were running around the building and squealing half the time, the simple presence of eleven American group facilitators was valuable for their cultural engagement. (I cannot thank my DukeEngage group enough for spending their last weekend in South Africa sleeping on the floor of the District Six Museum with thirty tireless children.) This relationship alone exposed both the participants and the Duke facilitators to myriad new ideas about the world they live in. Beyond Night at the Museum, “Making a difference” was not, however, by any means the focus of this experience. Instead, my DukeEngage summer allowed me to absorb knowledge and forge relationships in ways that would never be possible on Duke’s campus. What I have learned here in Cape Town has excited me about the challenges facing modern South Africa and has primed me to recognize similar issues that are equally present but not necessarily as obvious back home. Although I absolutely did not change the world this summer, living and working in a different part of the world definitely changed me.