In honor of its 20th anniversary, the Kenan Institute for Ethics presents this new series focused on how individual students navigate their search for purpose.
Like many college-bound high school students, Gautam Chebrolu (E’17) participated in a variety of volunteer opportunities, including a senior project to start a city-wide middle school debate circuit. That final year would become critical for Gautam. As he reflected on his and his peer’s volunteer experiences, he began to question the motivations for and real value of the work. Was it enough to personally feel good and successful for making an effort, or was there something more to explore?
His first Duke experience came with the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ pre-orientation program Project Change, which works with local community and charitable organizations to examine Durham’s social needs. This experience provided him with the framework for examining ways to engage with communities to engage purposefully with their needs. “I finally had a path to unpack what I was thinking about and reference new contexts for what I was thinking. It just started to make sense.”
As a member of Team Kenan, a student programming group, Gautam continued this exploration through conversations with fellow students and by engaging with scholars and practitioners in a variety of fields. The summer before his junior year, he embarked on a research project following a philanthropic microloan from start (his wallet) to finish (a motorcycle repairman in Nairobi, Kenya). Over the course of the summer, he developed a new appreciation for the potential of social entrepreneurship while also recognizing its limitations in meeting the actual needs of small business owners.
“We always think about big overarching ‘solutions’ like curing cancer or achieving world peace or ending world hunger, but we actually should be focusing on the micro level–on the individual humans.”
For Gautam, these experiences at Duke have embodied the idea that social problem-solving requires not only research and action, but also taking the time to reflect on human interactions. Only with that crucial component was he able to imagine new or better ways to connect philanthropy as a model with the on-the-ground commitments and realities for entrepreneurs in developing economies. As a result, his personal and professional goals have been shaped by this appreciation for reflection.
“There is a part of me that wants to do something–anything–that changes the world. But I don’t think it comes from a do-good, philanthropist mentality. It’s more an acknowledgment that the world is huge and expansive, with tons of amazing mysteries. I had to be willing to accept that my purpose was malleable.”