Brad, Washington DC

How service projects ruined my life:

Picture for a moment the ideal of the American dream: a high paying job, a house, family, good health, plenty of food. You go to work in an office, maybe taking the train into the city. Life is comfortable, stable. Sounds perfect! Which is why it’s the American dream. So why is it that while I have most of these things, all I want is to go somewhere that is dirty, poor, dangerous, and unpredictable? One word: Service. That stupid word ruined what was otherwise a very linear track to a very clear goal.
I think it started when I got involved in residence life. It gave me the confidence to try new things, to venture from the stable into the unfamiliar, and do it with some semblance of grace. What I mean by this, is that I did not completely trip and fall, but managed to awkwardly fumble along with the idea that I was doing so intentionally. Through residence life I got a taste for building communities, and giving back to those communities. Feeling pride for what I had built, and a real connection and understanding of the people around me (complete with their beautiful imperfections) made me hunger for more. So, I looked around for more ways to do this, and found Engineers Without Borders.
The EWB group brought passionate, eager engineers together with the idea that they could do something positive for others. What could be more valuable than that? The comfort and stability which a normal career might offer pales in comparison to the rewards of dedicating your work to the betterment of life. Through this group, I found a community of like minded individuals and a way to explore how engineering and service could work as a couple. The two fields weren’t married yet in my mind, but they were definitely flirting with one another. Being an engineer, I always thought of service as part of my life, but not a career. Things were changing in my mind though, and I was getting a dangerous taste for what my future could be.
Because of my experience with EWB, and a little more good luck, I got a job for the summer working in Tanzania doing some work on technology for developing communities. Specifically, an electronic device which teaches visually impaired children how to write braille. This was my first hands-on service work that was ‘in the field’. The experience was thrilling. It caused me to see the world in such different ways. Specifically, the patience and strength of Tanzanians, facing much harder obstacles than I had ever experienced gave me a new found sense of humility and perspective on my own problems. I came back to the states feeling light – happy, grown, and with a sense of perspective about what did and did not matter. Older and wiser, but not tarnished and pessimistic.
The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, was at the end of my college experience. I spent two weeks in the Philippines with other engineering students building houses and teaching kids about engineering. I worked with and led my peers, who inspired me and made me proud to do the word. It was grueling, awful work. We dug holes in garbage and dirt mixed together, with broken tools, in blazing heat, for an entire day. We were all exhausted, dehydrated, disgustingly dirty, and I had never been happier. I came back from the trip with a bad case of pneumonia, caused by a mix of 3 days of constant travel, exhaustion, and breathing in diesel exhaust for a 6 hour drive. As I was lying in the car with my mom driving me to the hospital, I was very much delirious. But I remember one thing: telling her that getting sick would not stop me from going back. I remain determined to go back, and continue working.
So my path was as follows: trying out some service as part of a school job, helping grow a service focused organization on campus, doing a service related job for a summer abroad, and finally going on a 2 week service trip. That path led me here: to my ruined life.
I currently have everything anyone could ask for: job, apartment, health care, food, friends, holidays off. But – I’m miserable, and the reason is that service is no longer a part of my life. I’m an addict, and I need my fix. And just volunteering on the side is not enough. I know I’m ruined for good. I want my work and my purpose to be completely married.
So here I sit, with my dreams simultaneously achieved and ruined. And I couldn’t be happier about it.