Thursday evening, I went to a conversation and workshop about international volunteering and the social implications that it has on communities and individuals. The people running the event implored us to ask the critical questions about our work and what it means. So, following their lead, I started asking myself the critical questions. Why me? What makes me special to do this job? Did DukeEngage really need to spend all this money for me to work at my internship? Am I worth all the effort? Couldn’t another student in Ireland do what I am doing? Granted, I am beyond thankful that I’ve had this experience but last night just reminded me of all the challenging questions you should ask yourself before you go abroad to work or volunteer.

When I read these questions, they seem pretty cynical or at least pretty negative. I think they imply that answers have to be in the negative. Why me? Answer: it doesn’t really need to be you. What makes me special to do this job? Answer: You aren’t actually that special, but your network got you here. Did DukeEngage really need to spend all this money on me? Answer: Probably not. Am I worth all the effort? Answer: Probably not. Couldn’t another student in Ireland do what I am doing? Answer: Sure they could.

Uninspiring right? So quickly these questions can turn volunteering into a paralyzing experience. People at Duke talk about these huge ideas about volunteering and service and anytime I leave those conversations I leave feeling down. I leave feeling that I can’t do any real good, I am replaceable, I am privileged, and no one wants my misplaced service which might just be a manifestation of my guilt. I mean, goodness, how does anyone do anything when you have conversations like that? I think people can become so caught up in all the reasons why service is complicated and why service has serious social implications that they become disheartened.

But what about the little wins? I fully recognize that I am not some super special 20-year-old that was born to save the world, but can I not feel good about the work I am doing? Can I not believe that I have had some small impact? And honestly, maybe the answer is indeed no, but I can try and look at the positives before being swallowed by the negatives.

Over my internship I’ve celebrated a lot of little wins, I think. Firstly, I worked on family reunification applications and though I am not a lawyer, I am an excellent photocopier and file tracker. When my supervisor worked with the client through specifics of the application, I might run out of the room to make copies of birth certificates or family registries. I concede anyone can make photocopies, but I know that without those photocopies, the client’s application couldn’t have been sent in. Yes, my impact was small, but it mattered. Maybe this is naïve but hey, it works for me. Also, I have done a lot of mini research projects. I researched adoption laws in Zimbabwe, deportations of Syrians from Saudi Arabia, forced disappearances in Syria, the Khan al Sheh Refugee camp, and material conditions in South Sudan to mention a few. All of this research helped add dimensions to visa applications, family reunification applications, and IHAP applications. I actually saw when my research showed up in cover letters and applications which felt pretty great. Maybe, just maybe, that will help the client’s case enough to succeed. Again, I concede someone else could do that research, but should that stop me from feeling good about my work? And finally, I am going through Nasc’s hate crime and racist report files and archiving them. Eventually, I will present the data and work to type up a policy recommendation. The people working specifically on this project in the past haven’t had the time to go through all of the files so that’s where my presence is key. And after all of the archiving, I will be able to produce something with an actual impact like a policy recommendation. That’s a win for me.

At the end of the day I think you need to have those uncomfortable, challenging, and personally criticizing conversations because they reveal the motivations behind your work, but you also have to be gracious with yourself. Without those questions I previously asked myself, I could be disillusioned with my impact or with my importance, but if I focus too much on all the ways I could be wrong, I won’t be able to work at all. So, I will continue to celebrate the little wins, but I will also try to check myself before I walk through Nasc’s doors or board a flight for my next international project.