Rethinking Accomplishment

Guest post by Adria Kinney, T’13 | Assistant Director for Training and Student Development, DukeEngage

 

Summer, 2011.

“What do you feel you accomplished?”

I held the wrinkled sheet of notebook paper, considering the question I had scribbled a few months prior. Abigail, my DukeEngage site coordinator, had instructed my fellow program participants and I to write letters to ourselves before journeying to rural Kenya. The letters remained in sealed envelopes over the course of the eight weeks, and we were to open them upon finishing the program. I had ended my letter with the abovementioned question, hoping that, after what was sure to be a life-changing experience, I’d have an eloquent answer.

Instead, I struggled to come up with a satisfactory response. What had I accomplished?

I thought back to the summer spent teaching at different village schools. Seeing a new part of the world, immersing myself in an unfamiliar culture and forming relationships with my students and the amazing WISER girls had left an indelible impact on me. I became captivated by cross-cultural exchange, felt less adrift, and left Kenya knowing I wanted to carry the experience with me. But if I was being honest, while I could think of numerous ways the program had impacted me, I wasn’t sure how much I had impacted the program. Frankly, that felt like failure.

Seven years later, I find myself back at DukeEngage – this time, as part of the staff. About a month into my new role, I met with a student that had just returned from WISER. As we sat in my office and reminisced, sharing fond memories of what had made our summers so rich and worthwhile, I was struck by how much WISER had changed. Ideas that had been just that – ideas – when I participated were now robust programs. Questions we had asked in causal reflection sessions around the dinner table had spawned new initiatives with extensive community buy-in. The structure of the program looked the same, but its content had changed significantly.

My conversation with that student made me realize the long-term, oftentimes slow-moving nature of civic engagement work. Whatever I did or did not accomplish at WISER in 2011 was simply a piece of a much larger puzzle. That is not to say that my work hadn’t mattered. But the measure of productive civic engagement work cannot be reduced to short-term, easily quantifiable deliverables, and to have had that expectation was misguided on my part.

Whatever I did or did not accomplish at WISER in 2011 was simply a piece of a much larger puzzle. That is not to say that my work hadn’t mattered. But the measure of productive civic engagement work cannot be reduced to short-term, easily quantifiable deliverables, and to have had that expectation was misguided on my part.

Looking back, I can now say that while at WISER, I taught young, impressionable girls and boys, increasing their exposure to a world beyond what they could see. I helped share messages of empowerment to girls unaccustomed with a sense of agency. I forged bonds with community members, some of whom I still talk to today. I was part of a team that maintained a positive and productive relationship with our community partner, preserving DukeEngage’s reputation and the opportunity for continued service. I developed an informed passion for civic engagement that has influenced my career, bringing me to a place where I now train students before they travel to the very same place that affected me so deeply. It may have taken me seven years to realize it, but that certainly feels like an accomplishment to me.