Program: Service Opportunities in Leadership (SOL)
Community Partner: International Catholic Migration Commission
Location: Knin, Croatia
The flip side of failure
What initially drew me to my SOL internship was the chance to go abroad and help. Somebody in my dorm who was older than me had done it the year before and I thought “oh, this sounds great! I’m interested in trying to help make the world a better place! I want to go to Croatia! And oh, there was just a war there—I can go help fix things!” It wasn’t that I had an exaggerated sense of my own abilities, but more that I was very naïve. Like a lot of students coming to Duke, I’d never really been tested in my life before—I had a comfortable upbringing, did well, never struggled in school. Going into this internship, I was like “yeah, I can do this!”
Did it occur to me that I didn’t speak Serbo-Croatian? Well, I bought a tape, it’ll be alright. Did I have any background in psychosocial healing for people coming out of war? No. Did I have any real professional experience to speak of? No. I really hadn’t thought any of it through.
When I arrived in Croatia, I quickly realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I was working with an NGO that had just set up its operation in a rural area that had been devastated by a quasi-genocidal conflict—a severely economically depressed area with lots of hatred still in the air. And there I was— Joe-College-Sophomore from the United States coming in to do…what?
I spent my first four weeks floundering in the office. I was in a really remote place and my internship supervisor lived in the capital city, so she only came down every 10 days or so. I was unhappy, I was lonely, and I was completely isolated except for a fax machine where I could occasionally send handwritten notes back to the Hart Leadership Program. It’s not like I was idle—I did try and sketch out ideas of how to be useful. But I would go in in the morning and be like “okay, I’m here! What should I do?” I wanted somebody to plug me in, rather than plugging myself in.
Finally, it got to the point where my internship supervisor said: “You aren’t happy. This isn’t working for either of us. If you can’t figure this out, you can go home.” They were literally going to put me on a plane and send me home. And that would’ve been it—I would’ve washed out of SOL and the Hart Leadership Program.
That moment really forced me to look within myself and realize that maybe I had overestimated my ability to make this a success. It was hugely humbling—I remember thinking “what do I know how do? I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t know how to run the micro-enterprise program.” I was trying to desperately identify somewhere that I could add value. Finally, I thought “I guess I know how to do research? I’ve done a lot of research projects at Duke, I know how to ask questions, and I’m a good listener. Maybe I can go talk to people.”
I talked to my supervisor and she told me about how there were still a lot of things that they didn’t know in designing their programming, so I said: why don’t I do a needs assessment? I ended up visiting about 13 communities throughout rural Croatia, doing interviews with about 80 refugees who had recently returned from abroad. These were people who had been kicked out of their homes because they were ethnic Serbs and they were trying to come back and resettle, but they had all kinds of needs—from economic to social to housing. From those interviews, I was able to prepare a report for my NGO so that they could figure out how to create programs that could best address their needs.
That summer in Croatia was the hardest thing I’d ever been through—personally, professionally—but I came away a stronger person. And the skill that it taught me—that ability to stand back, look at a problem, and design the right questions to help answer it in a participatory way—has been crucial to most of my professional experiences ever since.
For those of us fortunate enough to work in knowledge-oriented jobs, it’s on you to make the most out of the experience and shape it. College isn’t always the best way to prepare for that. The real world isn’t like a seminar at Duke where it’s like “here are the five things you have to do for this research project and here’s when it’s due.” When the tables are turned and it’s on you to craft your actions, that’s the leadership challenge: to take the role you have, the resources you have, the knowledge you have, and the people you have to work with, and then find a way to make the most out of it. So, in terms of training for real life, it’s hard to think of any better preparation than SOL.
Matthew Reisman (’00) is Director of International Trade Policy for Microsoft Corporation. He currently resides in Springfield, Virginia.