Too cool for school
There are few things I enjoy more about the beginning of the school year than early move-in. It is truly a beautiful time. Campus is empty, desolate and lonely—I love it. It gives me the opportunity to do things I don’t normally have the chance to during the semester—walk through the gardens, read Hemingway, exercise.
And then, just like that, the sweet silence and serenity is shattered by the onslaught of freshmen arriving on campus for Orientation Week. Having been both a participant and active observer, I consider O-Week to be one of the best times of the year. However, going into my third year I’m starting to realize it’s also a ridiculously absurd concept.
The premise is simple enough—allow new students and their parents to arrive on campus for six days of structured fun where students can acclimate to campus, learn about the University’s resources and meet other members of the incoming class in an informal, laid-back setting, thereby forming friendships that will last a lifetime or at least until Monday when classes start. It’s a noble cause, really, but in reality O-week is more of a hot mess of names you won’t remember, food you’ll eat too much of and social pressures you’ve never before encountered than anything else the pamphlet might tell you. And despite Duke's best efforts, new students often seem less interested in taking advantage of O-Week info sessions (side note: I live for info sessions and am super jealous I don’t get to go to as many) and more intent on living out the crazy, wild and belligerent college experience they’ve been conjuring up in their minds for years. And so you end up with this odd combination of individuals who, while complete strangers, are also desperate to impress each other, and the upperclassmen who inadvertently urge them on through the hormone and alcohol fueled debauchery that has come to define O-Week for a lot of first-years.
And that’s how it starts.
O-Week is supposed to be this low stress time to have fun and get to know people yet I can't think of a time when social pressure is higher. There's an almost immediate pressure to be “cool,” to establish oneself, to meet the right people and find the right parties. After all, this is college. This is the time to be anyone you want to be. And why would you want to be anything other than cool?
It’s a common theme portrayed in pop culture—the nerd/loser/unpopular kid graduates high school and leaves behind his nerd/loser/unpopular ways to become a total hot shot in college. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s not entirely far fetched. The girl who never felt pretty, the guy who wasn’t accepted, the valedictorian who made straight A's but for some reason was never truly happy—these are just a few scenarios in a string of common narratives we’ve either heard or experienced ourselves. But the supposed silver lining to this is that when we go to college, we leave behind these insecurities and shortcomings for the opportunity to start anew. We’re told that college is the chance to completely redefine ourselves. We’ve worked hard! We’re at a top school! We did it! For the first time in our adult life, we dictate how people see us and what type of image we want to convey to the world. Maybe you had a wonderful high school experience or maybe you hated everything and everyone, but regardless, at Duke you get to decide who you are independent of your past.
And so we arrive on campus with the intent to present a cleverly crafted version of ourselves, to be fun and interesting but not in a way that makes us seem like we’re trying too hard (cue reoccurring concept of “effortless perfection”). As freshmen, we all came in wanting to be “cool," whatever that meant to each of us. And while that’s a honorable goal, I'm going to go ahead and say it's an horrible long-term plan.
If you were a terrible, insecure, lonely human being before you came here, chances are you’re going to continue to be a terrible, insecure, lonely human being. It doesn’t matter how many parties you go to or how impressive you make yourself seem, the issues from your past don’t go away just because you’ve entered a new setting. The idea that you can leave your old self behind and start over is at best, misleading, and at worst, detrimental to personal growth and genuine self-acceptance. And this unproductive mentality we have coming in doesn't end with the last day of O-Week. Whether participating in cutting-edge research, wearing pastel shorts or talking about how busy we are, Duke students approach the issues we care about with unwavering passion and determination. But what I don't see as much, and what's been on my mind lately, is the same sort of a dedication to constant and evolving self-reflection.
People told me I could go to college and be anything I wanted to be. But no one ever mentioned that I could also just be me.
I arrived on campus as hopeful and eager for external validation as anyone else. But the longer I’m at Duke, the more these concerns fade from importance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty awesome, but I would never use the word “cool” to describe myself. I meow during awkward silences, comment on people’s facial structures and use really aggressive verbs in everyday conversation. To be honest, I'm not effortlessly anything, but I have learned to be okay with myself first before taking anyone else into consideration.
So, for my unsolicited - and perhaps unwanted - nugget of wisdom for the week: Be whoever you want to be, but also be aware of who you already are and all the baggage that comes with that. Self-reflect openly, honestly and critically. You're at Duke; you're here for academic and professional development first and foremost. But that doesn't mean you can't become a better, more complete person along the way.
Michelle Menchaca is a Trinity junior and the Editorial Page Managing Editor. This is her first column of the semester.