With May looming around the corner, more and more people keep asking me, “How does it feel to be almost done?” I still have no answer, but now I realize that there are many things to pick up along the seemingly long road to graduation that I wish I had known about when I first set foot on East Campus during orientation week freshman year. There are many valuable things I learned from my courses, but I learned the most important lessons at Duke outside of class. This is not for lack of going to lecture and taking notes and studying hard, but rather because some lessons must happen outside of the classroom. Most of the important things I have learned have come from spontaneous hangouts on the plaza, elongated study breaks in Bella Union, drawn-out “quick” snack visits from friends to my dorm room and, most of all, laughter-filled conversations at the dinner table.
For most of my sophomore and junior years, I would either order in the majority of my dinners or get them to-go, convinced that I did not have enough time to spare a 30-minute break with other people to catch up on the day. I would go back to my room, confident that my productivity would be higher there. “Studying,” however, usually just meant watching an episode of a television show. It was not until a track injury put me on crutches and ordering in became a necessity that I began to question eating alone. I asked myself, “What is the point of ‘knowing’ people on this campus if I have no idea what is going on in their lives?” I now know I was not too busy for a meal with someone, but I was foolish enough to believe I would not waste 30 minutes on my own. Think about your activities over the course of a regular weeknight. How much time do you waste on Facebook, Twitter, memes or reddit.com? It could certainly add up to at least those 30 minutes. Why not spend it with real people instead?
So this year, I decided to try a little social experiment. At the end of spring 2011, I made a commitment to have dinner with other people at least six days a week for the next full year. Dinner is the time of day to take a break, to exchange ideas and to share food and stories. I think it is possible that I have learned more from over 150 of my peers in the roughly 170 dinners over the past two semesters, than in over 500 days spent in classrooms over the past four years.
Sometimes it is the simple realization that someone else shares your love for Dame’s Chicken and Waffles, or that you mix the same milkshake flavors at Cookout, or that you are not the only person who becomes slightly sinister while playing Settlers of Catan. It is during dinner that I learned that the best place to be on a Wednesday night is Jazz at the Mary Lou. Without the past year’s dinner conversations, I wouldn’t have gone to as many of the incredible restaurants that make Durham “America’s Foodiest Small Town.” At Duke, businesses start, romances blossom and friendships are fostered, all over dinner. Just think about the many friends you “need to catch up with,” but have not spoken to for months. There are so many amazing people at Duke, and, at the end of the day, every single one of them has at least one story to tell.
One person’s story in particular makes me realize how much of a difference we lowly Duke students can make. Jamie Patrick transformed a passion to help people into a fully operational business, West African Ventures in Agriculture (WAVA), that aids farmers in Liberia. I know this because he has been my roommate for two years, but our coming together sprang from an idea tossed around at dinner in 2010, when we barely knew each other. Since that fateful dinner, he has challenged me in many ways but mostly in how I live out my faith as a Christian. His infectious generosity has made me give my time, food and gifts more freely. He has also forced me to face this constant question that I have always been reluctant to acknowledge: How am I going to help impact the people of the world in a positive way? Sure, there are many other examples of Duke students who have done similarly amazing things, but I tell you this story because it calls into question our ridiculous habits of forsaking meals with people for the sake of work or the insidious busyness that runs rampant across our campus. What if I “didn’t have time” to get dinner that night in 2010? Perhaps, now, I would not have one of my closest friends. What a loss it would have been.
I challenge you—take the time to get to know people over a meal. It might change your whole Duke experience. You will always learn something, I promise.
Well, Duke-time is almost up for me. That’s all I’ve got. Flash out.
Caleb Duncanson is a Pratt senior. This is his final column of the semester.