09 November 2013

Does you work make a difference?

I recently returned to my university town after an almost 16 month absence. These first few weeks have been spent catching up on much work, responsibilities, and settling in. I returned to finish out my degree requirement of dissertation defense. This will take yet another few months of reanalyzing data to my advisor's satisfaction, writing more chapters, and editing existing ones. Chasing a PhD is a process, obtaining the PhD requires courage and persistence beyond what you yourself think is possible. No melodrama, there is something important to this statement I will revisit.

Being back I see lots of unfamiliar faces. College towns have a high turnover rate - transient communities. Of those people I know, not many have reached out. Those that have offer an hour or two of time for coffee or a shared meal and remind me of their time limitations. Graduate students and University Professors are often too consumed in deadlines, obligations, the importance of their research. I am not immune. And when I run into someone I know on campus there has been lots of unanswerable questions or strange assumptions lobbed at me. One statement that has come up in the context of doing fieldwork abroad,"So your work is going to make a difference." Whether this statement had cynicism attached to it is now unimportant. This morning, after considering the words with detachment, I realized what my response should have been: "It already has."

The friendships, the conversations, the new ideas, the window into other worlds, the landscapes traversed, the opportunity to serve, be served, share, lecture, teach, adapt, grow, host, be hosted, laugh, smile, give, receive, connect, write, think, reflect have all made a difference. I've learned a great deal of useful skills while attending Oregon State University. The halls, the classrooms, the offices of professors, working alongside professional academics has given to me an incredible amount of information, experience, and tools. Attending this university has made a difference. Because of this choice to chase a PhD I went to Ethiopia, Egypt, England, Thailand, Laos, etc. to connect with others about ideas. Standing in those places has made a difference. This blog, the Nile Project, Wando Ganet College, local NGO offices, international institution offices, government offices, Franciscan monasteries, Mother Theresa Houses, the streets of Addis Ababa & Vientiane, the villages along the Blue Nile & Mekong...participation with and exposure to these things - the people involved that have reached out or the people to who I reached out - all this has made a difference.

I had coffee with a student of mine this week. She asked eagerly, "How can I make a difference?" That her question had the smell of life-changing decision is unimportant...or is it? My advice was to chase what she is passionate about, look into her heart's desire, and the difference will happen.

Whether now being consulted as an expert, called upon to present, given opportunity to publish, interviewed for media, written to by other experts or professionals working on the dams or working in development...the decision to chase a PhD and the work involved has made a tremendous difference in my life and, I'd like to say, some measure of difference in the lives of those I've come into contact. So, the statement I made initially about a PhD being a tough choice, a daring pursuit, the thing in itself may seem static, it isn't. Any challenge in life, any goal, like a PhD, like a raising a family, like starting a business, like changing careers, like moving your home - these moments offer opportunities to make a difference because of intention and to what happens in pursuit. Choose a goal and start running. Depending on the day, sometimes you run, sometimes you skip or dance, sometimes you crawl...But the important thing is to be brave, believe in yourself, and dare to keep smiling. In this way, your work makes a difference.