Contributed by James Wang. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.

Sitting in a corner of Group 484, a highly functioning organization for refugee support, I feel bewildered. My Serbian co-workers are talking in fluent Serbian which I can’t understand, busy with responding to emails and grant reports in Serbian.

My job this summer in the organization is to research about the migration issues around the world to prepare educational materials for the upcoming seminars for Group 484. Every couple days I send my research to my supervisor, and it usually take 1-3 business days till we could have a discussion. Occasionally colleagues would ask me for help with report editing and proofreading.

My co-workers are truly wonderful people who make sure I feel comfortable here everyday. Whenever we have chance, we passionately talk about cultural or political differences between Serbia, China, and USA. They speak very good English. Everyday, my supervisor is occupied between meetings, emails, and phone calls, but he still makes time to read my research materials and give me feedback and guidance. And yes, I have asked to be more involved in their programs and tasks, but I lack the ability to make phone calls, write proposals, or observe meetings—all of these are in the Serbian language. To keep me occupied, my organization gives me research assignments to produce optional readings for the seminars in the future.

It was hard to accept the reality of not being very needed or helpful.

Coming to Belgrade, I expected to work using some sophisticated Duke skills to serve with Syrian refugees directly and indirectly, helping to handle the humanitarian crisis. Instead, the only thing I can do now is some independent academic research. When I applied to DukeEngage, I didn’t expect to make big changes to a community on the other side of the world. Yes, there are only a few things I can do in a place I have little “cultural competence” (in terms of language, culture, etc), yet staring blankly into my macbook, I want to believe I’m very useful, but I know my use is limited.

So here I come to the question: what can I make out of this experience, if I can’t be very contributive? Throughout these couple weeks, when the sparks of optimism about my impact gradually subsided, almost stifled by the stark reality of cultural incompetence, how can I reposition myself and spend the next six weeks in Serbia?

President Brodhead, in the Academy, repeatedly reminded us, “DukeEngage experience is not about you.” However, in order to make meaning out of this experience, everything I do must be about me now. If I can’t be more contributive to other people, then at least I can use the time to enrich myself, to “change my world.”

I began to contemplate how to best enrich myself in Serbia this summer, instead of changing the world. First, I’m using my free time in the week to take tennis lessons with high quality for a cheaper price than in the States. I found a responsible coach who can improve my techniques and strokes. Most enticingly, for the first time in my life, I have the opportunity to hit on a clay court, the most common court in the home of Djokovic, which is rarely seen in America or China. Sliding on the clay and covering my shoes with red sand, I imagine myself hustling on Roland Garros, fully satisfied with this exotic experience.

Second, watching Euro Cup (the soccer championship) in Europe – there is hardly a better DukeEngage site for that. After I come home every night, I debate and boo with my host dad and brother, who are equally, if not greater, soccer enthusiasts in front of the TV. (No need to get up at 3am to watch the game as I would have done in China).

Third, I turned my gaze on journeys. DukeEngage Academy had voiced against the spirit of “travel tourism” in our summer. Yet, I found that I could enrich my experience much more on the road. With friends who were equally craving for additional experience, we walked around the underground prison well of Kalamegdon, climbed the fortress of Nis, the birthplace of Constantine the Great, and talked to the expatriate vendors in Blok 70, the biggest Chinese community in Serbia. Holding the skull of a Serb Martyr in the Skull Tower, I sunk into the Hamletian contemplation, wondering the philosophical questions of “What is a man?” (Act 4.4).

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But you might ask, how are you killing your time in the work hours? Well, after changing my mentality, my work time becomes more enjoyable. Taking a sip of coffee and easing my pace to match the laid-back lifestyle of Belgrade, I started to enjoy my research more. When proofreading program reports for my colleagues, I take the time to learn the methodology and practicality of the programs, not just fix grammatical errors. Whenever bored, I take out my Kindle to read good novels, knowing that it is all up to me how to value my own time.

In short, when thrown in a place of incompetence and a state of disillusion, I learned to quickly reposition myself, alter the taught doctrine of schoolwork, and steer my own experience with meaning. While not as expected, my experience in Serbia is certainly richer than two months of lethargic summertime back home.


One thought on “Self-Improvement

  1. Although you may not see the significance of what you dismissively call academic research, the fruits of your work appear to be very useful to Robert, your supervisor. Some of the skills you take for granted (identifying reliable sources, retrieving peer-reviewed articles, synthesizing masses of reports, and interpreting the migrant in five nations) are very impressive. Because so many relevant articles are in English, even your fluency in English is valuable. Feeling disillusioned with what you see as a lack of significance, it appears you have changed course to reverse the DE mantra so that your conclusions is, “Duke Engage is about me.” Do your friendships and ties with your homestay family also point in that direction? In any case it sounds as if you have expanded your horizons this summer!


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