Measuring Impact

Now that we’re in the last week, and I’m finishing up my research, I find myself reflecting deeply about what kind of impact my research report will have. Since I was in high school, I always imagined my contributions to the world through the lens of a hyper-competitive academic setting. How can I prove myself worthy? How can I up my level of prestige? What scholarships can I compete for? These were the considerations that guided my decisions and determined my involvement with the world.

Yet, given the task I was assigned with DukeEngage, for once, these considerations went by the wayside. The foreign environment and the projects over emphasis on each Duke students’ individual experience meant there was literally nothing else I could concern myself with, no ulterior motive, no maneuvering to capture some level of prestige, just me and my project. In this context, my focus began shifting sharply towards the impact of my work. How is my research going to improve the lives of individuals? After all, this report is to be the cornerstone of my entire summer and the subject of much of my thinking.

Based on what I’d heard, this report had the potential to provide very practical information to the organization I am working for. My analytical training at Duke could bring to light some of the more nuanced issues behind what the Separated Children’s Service experienced on daily basis. More ambitiously, this report, in all its cutting-edge foresight, could perhaps inspire the policy changes that would facilitate better employment outcomes for future migrant students. This prospect, that my services would be invaluable to the achievement of some goal, I remember was at first exhilarating to me. In fact, I believe it may have been what originally drew me to Duke Engage. It was an affirmation of what I had been molded to think my whole life—that my academic streak would bring me unparalleled fulfillment in life, in ways that others could never get. Without this academic component of my work, I can imagine my disappointment and the concern I would feel that the organization would not be getting as far as it could. But as I closed out the last of my interviews, I realized that this framework was simply not holding up.

The students I interviewed came from all over the place and experienced a humongous range of success. One had never worked a job a day in his life. Another had gone on to get his Masters degree from UCD, and was applying to earn his PhD when we spoke. What unified this diverse set of individuals were two names: Andrew and Manuela. Every single student, without exception, could recount detailed stories of a time when these individuals felt like a saving grace. In fact, the reason I experienced so much facility getting people to agree to interviews was because they felt like they were doing it as a favor to these two. Both of these individuals had spent countless hours working with students in a one on one setting, trying to be as helpful as possible. They didn’t always have the resources to make something happen for a student, but god damnit they tried. One student nearly brought us both to tears as he remembered a time when Andrew fronted him half the money to pay for his nationality card. The impact that they were able to have on so many lives was beyond words. It was tangible, it was meaningful, and it fostered the sense of deep human connection that most individuals encounter only a few times in their life.

In the end, I barely worked with the two of these individuals. My time was spent bouncing around from the school to interviews, and back to school again. But through a mere 35-minute interaction with the people who knew them, I developed a tremendous respect for the work that these two do. From what the students mentioned, this was the kind of support one would offer almost exclusively to a member of their immediate, nuclear family. Yet, the empathy and diligence with which Andrew and Manuela carried out these tasks made it seem as though it was a part of their duty.

Before Dublin, I could have never begun to imagine investing so much of myself into individuals on a daily basis. I, perhaps haughtily, thought my knack for analytical thinking could save me time doing trivial tasks that didn’t require a high-level thinking, while achieving the same or even better outcomes. But reflecting on my paper, as proud of it as I am, I have humbly learned that my impact is mere busy-work compared to the countless hours of empathy-filled support students receive from Andrew and Manuela. And more broadly, that sometimes, the most far-reaching impact can be had without any of the literature reviews or analytics, but with a heart of compassion and the selfless commitment to do good by others.