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A Blemished Golden State

Emily Ma

When I initially told my friends and family that I was partaking in Duke Engage in Orange County, I was met with shocked reactions followed by questions like: “What service would Orange County even need? Isn’t that where rich people live?” or the occasional “Will you be going to the beach every day?”. In response, I would explain about the tremendous wealth imbalance that exists and the amount of homeless people who live in the shadows. And lastly, no, I will not be going to the beach every day. As I approached my first week of Duke Engage Orange County, I kept these questions and common misconceptions in the back of my mind.

Throughout the week, one of my main takeaways was that living in poverty among a sea of the wealthy is ten times more challenging. When you are in a community of people who are in a similar socioeconomic level, there is a sense of unity through common problems regarding money. However, when you are the only one who is struggling to make ends meet, it can feel extremely isolating. My teachers always told me when I was a child that there are three main subjects that are off limits in a conversation: money, politics, and religion. If you start talking about any one of those, you can easily offend someone who is within earshot. After personal experience, however, I believe that we, as a society, should be more transparent about issues of poverty and inequity. The first step towards greater wealth equality means opening up about these hard truths.

At Girls Inc., the majority of the girls who will be participating in Eureka! camp have suffered from economic hardships at home. As staff members, it was important for us to learn how to make camp a safe place for these girls to open up about any issues or insecurities they have. Beyond this, it is our job to make camp a place where they can forget about their worries, they are excited to learn about STEM, and they dive into the opportunities that await them. Going through training, I have met several staff and members of the externship program who have gone through Eureka! camp and are now on the other side. One of the girls in the externship program opened up and told me, “It’s truly an incredible camp or else I wouldn’t have gone back year after year.” This really opened my mind up to the impact I can help make on the campers and their future. Not only will Eureka! teach them tangible skills and expose them to various elements of STEM, it will also prepare them to become confident leaders in the future.

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