Fulfillment and Purpose is one of the five core themes for the Healthy Duke initiative, and for Snehan Sharma fulfillment and purpose is tied up in the question of identity.
Sharma, a senior majoring in history, is the son of Nepali immigrants raised Hindu in Grayson, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. He grew up speaking English outside the house, but only Nepali at home.
“I think growing up the child of an immigrant is an interesting challenge because from the beginning of your life you are introduced to two very dominant cultures in your life, and often times it feels like you are sitting on a fence and you don’t know which way to swing your feet,” he said. “It’s trying to balance what sometimes feels like two separate worlds I’m a part of.”
Those worlds came together in high school in Atlanta where Sharma began working with a group of refugees from Bhutan who were ethnically Nepali.
“Having that common language made it easy for me to learn about them and then to learn from them,” he said. “Something shifted for me after that experience.”
When he arrived at Duke, Sharma became involved with different programs that focused on community engagement, including the Kenan Refugee Project. The program, run out of Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, seeks to “look beyond the facts and figures in an effort to understand the human implications of mass displacement.”
Then last year, he took a class at the Kenan Institute called Pursuit of Purpose. The course “examines some of the broad social forces that structure professional and personal life, giving students purchase on what to expect as they move beyond the university.”
“It was a pretty formative experience for me,” Sharma said. “This course became very influential. It was a space dedicated to these ideas like what is the difference between a vocation and a calling, questions that I don’t think enough people think about.”
He encountered the significance of such questions outside the classroom recently when he ended up in a conversation with an older man at a wedding.
“I mentioned to someone that I had been working in nonprofits while in college, and the person scoffed at me condescendingly and said there’s no money in that,” Sharma said.
What Sharma took away from the class and his experiences working with refugees was a deep sense of fulfillment in helping others. Now, he is facing another significant transition after he graduates – what type of job should he seek to find meaning and purpose from his work.
“After my experience working with refugees, it became clear that whatever career path I chose, I’d like to have more social benefit tied in than personal benefit,” he said.
Last summer, Sharma worked at a refugee and immigrant advocacy group and took away something that will help guide him as he leaves Duke and seeks to make a difference in the world.
“The strength of that, the power of that will not leave me anytime soon,” he said. “Regardless of what type of career I pursue, I think an element of that will always be with me, and a very strong element. Maybe I can also influence that space I’m in.”
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