From the moment we set foot on Duke’s campus, we find ourselves on an already charted path. We try everything our first year, get serious and pick a major sophomore year, go abroad in the Fall of junior year, find an important-sounding internship in the Spring of junior year and “make the most” of senior year.
Students follow these clean-cut scripts because they are comforting. They provide structure when students face daunting choices and remind us that even our mistakes are all part of the plan. They promise a light at the end of the collegiate tunnel: "Follow the course, and it will all be okay."
But students lose something when they buy into prepackaged ideas of what a college experience ought to look like. Perhaps students' stories might be best served by taking time off, spending more than four years on campus or discovering new internships. Students often forget that there are many more options available to them, such as joining co-ops, traveling or working on personal projects.
Although unconventional college paths seem exciting and glamorous, most students balk at the uncertainty they entail. This is especially true at Duke, where immense pressures to achieve academic success and professional validation discourage many from abandoning the conveyor belt and exploring alternative paths. It is unclear whether pressure to stick to the traditional path emanates from ambitious incoming students or trickles down from demanding employers. In any case, the temptation to check certain boxes within a given timetable reduces risk-taking and limits creative choices.
Nontraditional journeys can benefit both the students who undertake them and the entire University. Taking time off, for example, can do wonders for an individual’s mental health. It is shameful that Duke community members, many members of whom deal with mental health issues, tend to stigmatize the choice to escape campus for a semester or two. Returning students often bring a more balanced approach to their Duke experience and can share lessons with their peers.
Breaking out of the conventional college molds can also expose students to experiences of a radically different type and depth than a 10-week summer internship or even a semester-long study away program. Taking time off allows students to interact with people of different backgrounds and ages, forcing them to break out of the “age ghettos” to which students have been confined for most of their lives.
The value of non-traditional paths speaks to the flaws of traditional ones, which can move too fast and proceed too uniformly to encourage real soul-searching. We encourage Duke students to think of ways to break out of the one-size-fits-all patterns of academic, social and professional behavior. Take a weekend trip, go on a hike or meditate.Too often, we look askance at those who choose nontraditional college paths and commend those who can complete the traditional requirements—both academic and social—as quickly and successfully as possible. Mustering the courage to do something different, however, allows students to better focus and reflect on their college experiences, saving them time and energy later on. This is not wasted time, but rather a wise investment.