Two years ago, I ran for Bassett’s House Council and lost. I subsequently ran for a Duke Student Government (DSG) Senate seat and lost that, too. On the night of that second loss, I retreated to my room and sat against the frame of my bed, overwhelmed by my failures. In high school, I had succeeded at nearly everything, and now I was stunned—intimidated by an atmosphere where I was no longer the best, brightest or most accomplished. I didn’t want to lose anymore, and I was tired of trying. Most of all I was embarrassed, and I was dreading the “Did you win?” questions that would come the next day. I’d give a positive spin to my answer, I’d change the subject. But I also made a decision—I’m done trying. And I might have stuck with that choice, had I not received an email that night from former DSG President Pete Schork.
Pete wrote, “I’m sorry you did not win your election yesterday. Freshman elections can be pretty competitive and pretty arbitrary. Every year we get some of our best freshman senators—and future DSG leaders—from the Senate at-large application/interview process. … I actually lost my election freshman year and then applied through at-large; it’s the reason why I’m involved in DSG today.”
Pete wrote that email when he was DSG’s executive vice president, long before he’d established his legacy. Pete reached out to a disheartened first-year and told him a story. A story of preliminary failure but enduring success, an honest story of redemption, a story that made you sit up and say, “If he can do it, why can’t I?” Most of us now know Pete as a visionary leader who made a significant impact at Duke, but right then I felt he was speaking to me as a mentor and friend.
I followed Pete’s advice and got an at-large spot in the Senate, and now, two years later, I’m in the same position Pete occupied when he sent me that email. I never forgot that email, and Pete continued to be a mentor over the next two years. He was there to inspire me to action, console me over a legislative loss and remind me that I’m not done trying.
Pete wasn’t the only person I looked up to in DSG. There were so many other leaders—all mentors—who advised, challenged and motivated me. There was Kaveh Danesh, the academic dynamo who taught me how to convert my intellectual energy into legislative deliverables. There was Chris Brown, the ever-supportive leader who showed me that genuine sincerity is the key to affability. There was Will Passo, the venerated legend that stoked my passion and determination. And of course there was Alex Swain, our current DSG President, the poised leader who helped me find my own resilience. I looked up to so many others I don’t have room to name here, all leaders in their own way, all mentors to me forevermore.
This past week, so many first-year students have approached me with questions and advice. In responding to their inquires, I’ve tried to emulate my mentors at Duke. I want to tell them that they might not immediately succeed here, and that their failures (if you could even call them that) will bring them the kind of self-introspection that’s so stereotypically collegiate. I’ll take their questions with enthusiasm because I’m eager to forward the advice I received. I’ll tell them to never give up, but I’ll try to say it in the least cliché way possible. Finally, I’ll give them some advice: Seek out student mentors. It could be someone you met in class, or at ultimate frisbee, or maybe even at Shooters. Maybe it’s your FAC, or maybe your eventual fraternity brother or sorority sister will fill the role. It might even be me.
The Class of 2016 begins their DSG Senate elections this week. Before the campaigns start, I have a message for them: “Freshman elections are always competitive, and the most qualified people don’t always win—that’s politics. Every year we get some of our best senators—and future DSG leaders—from the candidates who lose but apply at-large. I lost my election my first year and then applied through the at-large process; it’s the reason why I’m involved in DSG today.” For me, they’re familiar words, and it’s time I pass them on.
Patrick Oathout, DSG executive vice president, is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Patrick on Twitter @patrickoathout