“Duke isn’t the real world.”
There are lots of stories we tell about our school, but this is one of the more pervasive. The Gothic Wonderland, the ivory tower, the Duke bubble—call it what you will; the sentiment is the same. As long as we walk these halls and breathe this air, we’re not in the real world. That’s for after our four years down the rabbit hole.
From Orientation Week to commencement, I often felt like I floated in postponed adulthood, a magical interim in which laundry is optional, free t-shirts fall like manna and food points runneth over. There were tests and papers aplenty, but a certain understanding hovered at the edges of any anxiety: this might be responsibility, but it’s not the real kind.
And in moments when it all felt particularly surreal—in the sweet-sweat-beer-stench of LDOC or the collective yawn of K-Ville at dawn—no truth seemed more obvious: Duke is no paradise, but this tower-studded universe of perpetual youth surely isn’t the real world.
Until there’s this thing called graduation. One weekend ruptures the Duke bubble, and ‘into the breach,’ we seniors cry, as the caps thrown high rain down upon us. Like Gatsby reaching for the green light, we spoke of the ceremony like it would be a switch we would throw—a threshold we’d cross. The robes melt off and transformed we stand, bathed in the harsh glow of adulthood. And so this became the refrain we wailed at the last late-night Satty’s, wept in Wallace Wade and whispered on our way out the door: This is it. Time for the real world now.
With my senior May behind me, I sometimes find myself wondering, “So is this the real world?” It’s a tricky question, since I’m not sure what the real world actually is. I know what it’s not, of course. It’s not Duke. In the real world, a student ID will not get you into a Steve Aoki concert, and midnight pancakes are a vice instead of a school-sanctioned virtue. But the negative space graduation had left in my sense of place has yet to be filled. I don’t know yet how to define that amorphous realm I call the real world, but I can certainly trace its outlines. Pensions and paychecks, lunch breaks and insurance rates. It’s a world that frowns at backpacks and smiles upon sensible shoes, a world that tastes like 7:00 a.m. coffee and reeks of responsibility.
And so when I ask myself whether or not this is it, my confusion confuses me. I’ve always thought of adulthood the way a foil-capped hopeful scans the stars for signs of intelligent life: I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but I’ll recognize it when it arrives. Admittedly, I’ve watched enough episodes of Friends to know that Graduation Sunday is not some wham-bam adulthood machine. Graduation is gradual, a friend took to saying, but still—shouldn’t the transition be a little more obvious?
Has my gap year planted me in the real world? By traditional accounts, not really. I'm not paying bills. I don't have a car, and I'm off in Borneo—eating fried bananas, spying on monkeys and getting caught in morning monsoons. If anything, my life lacks more of the trappings of adulthood than it did at Duke. There, at least, I had a mailbox.
But I can’t bring myself to say that this isn’t the real world. I might be mortgage-less, but I’m living at a cancer center and studying pediatric end-of-life care. I’ve sat in silence with a mother whose son will never wake up, held the hand of a girl for whom “when I’m older” is simply a hypothetical exercise. When death—the fear of it, the fact of it—lies like a knot at the center of my community, it is the grossest of insensitivities to say that I’m not in the real world. I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to figure out that tax returns and electricity bills are a really crummy way of gauging what’s real and what’s not.
Maybe Duke is not so different. It’s not a cancer center, but it holds its own kinds of pain. Privilege precludes poverty, but it does not prevent grief or self-loathing, abuse or abandonment. To call Duke unreal trivializes the reality of the heartache it contains, and, though college grants us the privilege of a little immaturity, “real-world” rhetoric justifies actions we’d never otherwise allow. With the specter of adulthood on the horizon, we fall prey to decisions that jeopardize our integrity, our communities and our bodies because—well—we’re not in the “real world” yet.
It’s easy to call Duke unreal because college life looks like it lacks real responsibilities. But that’s a myth. As long as we are in a community, and exist in community, our actions matter. They matter because they affect others. They matter because they etch habits which we will never erase.
In that sense, the dichotomy of the world’s real and unreal is the silliest way we can speak about life during and after Duke. When I ask myself if I’ve arrived at that promised post-grad reality, my question feels like a toddler's backseat plea, uttered ad infinitum: "Are we there yet?" Here’s the difference, however: When it comes to growing up, maybe there is no “there.”
Only here—just with more sensible shoes.
Jocelyn Streid, Trinity ’13, a former Robertson Scholar, is a Hart Fellow conducting pediatric palliative care research at a children’s cancer center in Kuching, Malaysia. This column is the fifth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written on the gap year experience, as well as the diverse ways Duke graduates can pursue and engage with the field of medicine outside the classroom. Send the columnists a message on Twitter @MindTheGapDuke.