It was an evening in early September, around dusk. A steady stream of students passed under the archways to the Bryan Center Plaza (RIP) on the way to and from dinner. Midterm season was not yet upon us, and people traveled in groups, still laughing about summer adventures and anticipating the coming semester.
I, however, was not in a group. In fact, I was not even moving—not even slightly. I was standing by the Plaza fence across from the old Loop, staring with all of my focus at the West Union wall.
Suddenly, I heard the voice of an old acquaintance. “Ellie?” she said. I jumped and then colored, realizing in an instant that, given her tone, what she was really saying was: “Ellie, are you having a psychotic break?”
I hastened to explain: No, I was not going insane. No, I was not waiting for someone. Yes, I was from Colorado, but no, I was not high at 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.
I explained: I was trying to imagine the new West Union. I was trying to build a building in my mind.
I had just become the DSG vice president of facilities and the environment, and the past hour had been spent with President Stefani Jones going over extremely-specific new plans for the new West Union. I was trying to see the glass that would replace the Duke stone I was looking at, to imagine the Plaza leading to a dining “street” lined with new vendors then splitting off into the historical Great Hall and Cambridge Inn.
Over the next several months, I would come to know not only the planned location of every room, but of the anticipated locations of the pieces of furniture within those rooms. I would come to not only understand the present plans, but to occupy my time thinking of ways to make them even better.
And it wasn’t just West Union. How could we make residence halls better given the current budgetary and time constraints? How could we make the carry-out culture at Duke restaurants more sustainable? When I became a DSG vice president, I expected to spend a lot of time in meetings and a lot of time crafting new policy. I expected to spend a lot of time dealing with complaints and with problems. But what I did not expect was for the job to be primarily about imagination.
Imagining ways to make life better. That was at the core of what we were trying to do.
And once I started looking at the world actively, searching for ways it could be improved, I started seeing both potential and problems everywhere I looked.
Over the course of the semester, it became clear to me how passive I had always been. Generally, the world—both the University and beyond—had seemed immutable to me, and so I contented myself by never taking conscious notice of its flaws, both large and small.
But now that I had this understanding that everything was up for discussion, that all could be changed, that creating a better community for everyone was inherently incentivized for everyone, my eyes were more active.
I noticed that we lost a food culture of community eating that I had growing up and during my first year at the Marketplace. That had been a passing thought before, a lament that I barely noticed.
But with my active eyes I wondered how to replicate the community atmosphere of dining on East with the variety and quality of the old food on West. And I heard murmurs of the same goal, from administrators and other students. I saw a proposed way of marrying the two ideals from the new West Union architects. And guess what? We’re going to make it better.
Governments of all kinds—be it DSG or the U.S. Government—get a bad rap for getting too bogged down in procedure and bureaucracy, in spending our time arguing over semantics and posturing over politics. But we’re at our best when we embody this idea of collective striving for a better community.
When I was a senator on DSG last year for the first time, the Services Committee proposed starting Fix My Campus. As a young senator, I didn’t think it would work. My passive eyes didn’t see the problems on campus as problems. I saw them as realities.
But it exploded. Once we all understood that we had the power to change things, we started seeing things to change. And once we noticed these changes that would be better for everyone, we were all instantly united in a common goal.
So look at the world around you with active eyes. Allow discontentedness, but bring with it concrete ideas for change. And then speak up about it. We’re listening.
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity junior and DSG vice president for the facilities and environment. Her column is the final installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by members of Duke Student Government. Send Ellie a message on Twitter @DukeStudentGov.