I wish I could capture what I felt as a high school senior quickly approaching graduation and directly contrast it with what I am feeling now as I am about to graduate from Duke. I remember I was completely numb to high school because I was so possessed by my expectations for the future. Now, it’s laughable. I, like many of you, was obsessed with the abstract idea of college. And, now with some hindsight perspective, I realize I was mostly fascinated by the idea of being part of an ancient, idealized institution more so than college itself. My fantasies of college consisted of me sitting in a leather chair, reading a big book and wearing oxfords. The ideal image I created for the future wasn’t because of my love for intellectualism or leatherwear, but because these were the images I associated with being part of an institution necessary to legitimize my existence.
I enrolled in classes like ancient political thought and French cinema because utility be damned! I wasn’t here to land a high-paying job. I was here to revel in unpractical haughtiness. Learn for learning’s sake and one day be an old woman who skulked in a corner and cited Foucault. I wanted these things because they signified you made it in the system that breeds who controls the world. This frame of thinking lasted approximately a week, ending right after I realized how narrow-mindedly I was thinking and remembered that somewhere within me I had a genuine intellectual interest that motivated me to pursue college in the first place. So, I attempted to figure out what college really was and feel more connected to my community. I started loving what the ivory tower university provided for me, but I felt empty toward the world around me. I felt that by entrenching myself in an institution that controls the world, I pushed myself further from it. That was, until I took a class at the Center for Documentary Studies.
The Center for Documentary Studies, or CDS, has been the most rewarding component of my Duke experience. The heart of the center’s mission statement includes the goal of “promot[ing] documentary work that cultivates progressive change by amplifying voices, advancing human dignity, engendering respect among individuals, breaking down barriers to understanding and illuminating social injustices.” It’s inspired. For me, it feels revolutionary. Its mission is not a nod to elitism and pedigree, it is a place where every single voice is equally valued. The course structure and the faculty there highlight the importance of grassroots storytelling. The center’s entire identity is based on breaking down barriers as a means for learning, which is the type of approach I felt my education was missing.
Applying the unique approaches of the Center to other academic fields made university level analysis and research feel much more fulfilled. At CDS, a physician can teach a photography course on documenting teenage pregnancies. An accomplished playwright and actor can teach black history through acting methods. I have talked with a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member and labor organizer for hours. I have discussed appearance-based gender privilege within female identities with a queer hip-hop artist. I have Skyped with genomics bloggers. I’ve made jam with two former Brooklynites who have made their way to Durham. I’ve interviewed AIDS survivors, my best friend, pastors, lawyers, judges, lawmakers, pediatricians, break-dancers and painters. Most importantly, I never viewed these people as guests or peripheral commentators—I viewed them as my educators.
It should be intuitive for a liberal arts education to require students to have a course structure like this. My history degree reveals to me the misconstrued narratives I’ve been fed my entire life. It encourages me to find diverse reporting and primary sources from voices that may have been neglected in previous historical accounts. Much of my coursework leads me to pursue a grassroots telling of a story. Therefore, it would only seem natural that I receive my own undergraduate education from varied voices. If my history education were to only rely on what professors and school library books tell me, I would be betraying the methods and historiography inherent in the field. As students we should recognize that we can learn from someone with just a Bachelor’s degree or without a high school diploma. And not only should we have the opportunity to do so, but it should be absolutely necessary. Our research and writing should be informed by whatever and whomever can contribute. Academia will be richer as a result. Tenure and credentials alone lead to a monolithic undergraduate experience, which leads to a more homogenous world. I am deeply grateful for the type of thinking and learning the Center for Documentary Studies exposed me to.
Three years ago today, I was incessantly Googling North Carolina and looking through duke.edu pages. I never came across the sites for the Center for Documentary Studies, the Duke Office of Civic Engagement, WXDU, or the Duke Coffeehouse—spaces I consider most essential to my Duke experience. Nothing I had pictured or planned for myself came to fruition. Instead, thanks to CDS, my identity, my way of thinking and my goals all radically shifted and reshaped. I am leaving Duke different from the ingratiatingly earnest, elitist, future corporate lawyer I arrived as, but I am still equally obsessed with the future and expectations. While much of this future is unknown, I will leave Duke having gained the precious insight that what is unconventional will leave you most fulfilled.
Adrienne Harreveld is a Trinity senior. This is her final column of the semester. Send Adrienne a message on Twitter @AdrienneLiege.