Like many first-years at Duke, I arrived here three years ago intent on achieving a specific list of goals. I know this because I typed them out on a Word document. I even titled it “College Objectives.” It’s been fun for me now, as a senior, to reflect back on these priorities. One goal was to go through my entire college career without ever revealing my political identity writ large. Another was to learn how to play the violin. I don’t think I have ever failed at so many ambitions in such a short span of time. Today, I stand before you a disappointment-of-a-senior by my freshman-self standards. I’m an openly Republican columnist, unable to so much as squeak a sound out of a violin.
And I’m completely fine with that. Freshmen, you will likely make some course corrections a couple of times, too. That’s okay. In fact, you probably should make some course corrections over the span of the next four years. If you leave this place the same person you came into it, you did something wrong. If you leave this place with more answers than questions, you also did something wrong.
But there is one goal that has remained central to my identity since the moment I stepped foot on this campus. Cliché as it is, this goal has become a guiding principle during my time at Duke. In these four years, I wanted to, as best I could, prepare myself to use any talents I might have to make the world a better place.
You see, I’m a comic book fan, and while I admit it is exorbitantly cheesy, I like to allegorically think of Duke as a super hero factory: We come to this place to discover and learn our superpowers before we’re sent out into the world to do good and (hopefully) accomplish our dreams. So freshmen, whether you find your superpower to be electrical engineering, medicine, writing or being the most sociable and lovable person on campus, I encourage you to suck dry the resources of this University to hone those skills. Rarely will you have more free opportunities and flexible time at your disposal than you do now. Go to office hours. Go to events. Volunteer. Expose yourself to people who will tell you you’re wrong, and debate them—politics, religion, anything and everything. When a scandal or campus controversy happens (it will), discuss it with people. These things will help you formulate an ethical code and discover your identity. Above all, meet as many people as possible—and not just your peers and professors—Duke employees have wisdom and anecdotes to share, too.
And remember that any successful, goal-oriented Duke career will be riddled with failures and mistakes. One of the most pervasive such mistakes I see at Duke—one I know I succumb to from time to time—I call the “And then I’ll have made it” Syndrome. I want to warn you to avoid it.
Duke is a competitive place, and it’s nearly impossible to escape being infected by the competitive attitude you see in every aspect of campus life. First it’ll be classes and grades. With winter there will be greek organization and SLG rush, then you’ll be seeking summer internships. And, of course, eventually you’ll be a senior and focused on what you’re going to do when you leave this place.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I can offer you is, with all this competition tugging for your attention, don’t get distracted from the everyday blessings that surround you. In the coming four years, you might face the temptation to tell yourself something along the lines of this: “Once I get in to X fraternity/sorority/SLG, then I’ll have made it,” or “Once I get X GPA, then I’ll have made it.” Duke (and life after Duke) is filled with “then I’ll have made its,”— false idols convincing you that if only you grasp one more accomplishment, one more goal, then you can be content. Then you will have made it in the world, standing firmly and proudly upon your mountain of triumph.
Don’t do this. There are few quicker ways to make yourself miserable than to fall prey to this trap. Directed ambition towards goals (even ambition of a fire-hot intensity) can be a healthy thing. Striving to find your “superpower” is a healthy thing. But while I’d encourage you to keep a to-do list of college goals, I’d more strongly encourage you to write that list in pencil not pen and understand that the list does not define you. The most content (and some of the most successful) people I know at Duke are those who enjoy the process as much as the destination.
So while I’d still love to learn to play the violin (and one day I will), I ultimately hold tightest to one main priority for the year: to achieve consistent present-mindedness amidst the torrent of life that is Duke University. Freshmen, I’d invite you to join me. Because the sooner we do, the sooner we might realize one of the best-kept secrets of life at this place—We’ve all already made it. Let’s strive, but let’s always remember we have little reason not to be content.
Daniel Strunk is a Trinity senior. His biweekly column will run every other Monday. Send Daniel a message on Twitter @DanielFStrunk.