The end of my DukeEngage program is rapidly approaching. I have spent the past seven weeks in Boston, one of the most historically rich cities in the country. I’ve learned about the lives of the Founding Fathers, Boston’s controversial track record with segregation, and the cultural heritage that accompanies the Northeast all while working as a marketing intern at a mentoring-based nonprofit. Yet, as the program draws to a close, I have found myself reflecting more on the lessons I’ve learned at Duke and less on the experiences I’ve had over the past two months. 

I was not excited going into my freshman year. I thought applying for and accepting my spot in a pre-orientation program would lift my spirits, but nothing could shake the reality that I was leaving behind everything I knew to study in a place so unfamiliar. The comfortable life I had in Houston was being traded for a life unknown. I have no family in Durham and none of my friends go to school anywhere near North Carolina. Sure, I had the luxury of attending Blue Devil Days and meeting my roommate. But, because I wasn’t sure I would even attend Duke until the day I had to make a decision, I didn’t bother meeting many people or learning about the campus I would soon call home. So, when the day came for me to board the plane, I was filled with more worry than optimism, more terror than joy, and more regret than excitement.

I would love to say that everything changed the moment I arrived on East Campus or when I sat in my first class or even as I joined clubs and organizations, but that would be a lie. For a long time, Duke did not feel like the place for me. No matter what I did, I had a hard time feeling like I was supposed to be at Duke. I went to basketball games, went to plays, went to Shooters (more times than I’d like to admit); I studied hard, attended all my classes, I formed relationships with most of my professors; I joined way too many clubs, I made friends everywhere I went, I even tried to meet people through Tinder. My experiments in inclusion went on for months. Everything I did to force self-inclusion on Duke’s campus made my isolation that much more pronounced. Then, one day during my second semester, I realized that I was so incredibly lucky to be attending a school that pushes me to succeed.

Duke has a funny way of equipping me with the tools I need to thrive while also depriving me of basic stability. Optimists call it baptism by fire. Administrators call it experiential learning. I call it what it really is: tough love. Each painstaking moment of my first year at Duke has made me a more well-rounded person capable of making it in the real world. Joining too many clubs early on taught me time management, bombing my first college essay taught me that I’m not above asking for help, surviving the rush process taught me how to be sociable in almost any setting, and experiencing (most of) LDOC taught me that my hard work eventually pays off. Each of these realizations has made adjusting to life in Boston much easier.

Just like coming to Duke, my first few days in Boston were terrifying. I only knew a handful of people in my program and have only ever lived in the South. But having gone through a similar experience once before, I knew how to handle being thrown into an unfamiliar situation and making it out alive. I knew to take coffee breaks when the assignments piled up at work. I knew that treating myself with TeaLux or Tasty Burger at the end of the week would give me something to look forward to when things slowed down. I knew that breaking off from my group some nights to watch reruns of Survivor would be the only way to stay sane around my eclectic group of eleven. 

Being in Boston has been a lot like the first few months at Duke: intimidating, mentally rigorous, and socially draining. If I’ve realized anything this summer, it’s that the key to fitting into Duke and fitting in Boston is the same. Learning how to be an actual person in a new environment was the hardest part of my first year but treating my highs and lows as chances to learn and grow gave me the freedom to begin enjoying life. I learned how to navigate one highly-educated, very wealthy, traditionally white space, what’s stopping me from navigating them all?