Lately, I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed by how short four years really is. Just when you finally feel like you’ve got Duke figured out, it’s time to leave for some place new. Duke's got a rich and complicated history that, after a certain point, inevitably becomes a part of your own. But while Duke has made an immeasurable mark on my life, it’s strange—and a bit terrifying—to think that we are such a small part of Duke’s story. And what’s even more unsettling sometimes is how little of that history we really know.
It's easy to feel like Duke began and ended when we got here. All we seem to know about the Duke of the past is that they had a higher acceptance rate and a better tailgate. No one tells the individual stories, passions and struggles of people who came before. We don't know those who hosted Take Back the Night, those who occupied the Allen building or those who first decided to pitch a tent in K-Ville.
But even more significantly, we don’t know the students who tried and failed to change things on campus—the people who dedicated their time and energy to things that never played out. They tried to reform our conduct system, fix ACES or improve the racial climate on campus. Those students didn’t necessarily lack the passion or ability to succeed, but they nonetheless left Duke having not finished what they started. We don’t know their stories, and thus, we cannot learn from or build upon their experiences.
Administrators watch sets of students come and go, arguing about the same things and raising the same issues. Unfortunately, we weren’t the first to complain about the Marketplace meal plan, and we weren’t the first to think up a million different ways to fix it. As students, we seem to reinvent the wheel a hundred times each year. After a while, you have to ask yourself why we don’t just leave a set of instructions.
We came into Duke knowing Duke as it was, but unaware of the stories that made it that way. And soon, another set of students will make our campus theirs, inheriting the beautiful, challenging place that we love. They won’t necessarily know the students who fought for a more inclusive Greek community, better dining options or improved sexual assault policies. But they’ll find Duke like it is, and they’ll begin the journey of piecing together their own college experience.
As students, our collective power is strongest when we work with those who came before us. Change always takes time, and it’s tough for any one student to do it alone. Knowing what’s been tried before, and what’s succeeded or failed, is critical to being effective moving forward. Maybe its time for an oral history of student advocacy at Duke, or something to make sure that student stories are passed on. Either way, we owe it to those who will come after us to make their task a bit simpler, and to help them a bit along the way.
So before you leave Duke, be sure to leave a bit behind. It doesn’t have to be through DSG—there are an infinite number of ways to impact and improve our community. Do something that will last beyond your time here, and be sure to always ask yourself what will make a difference. And when it’s your turn to inevitably leave and take on the big world, don’t forget to pass on a bit about what you’ve learned. Find someone who can finish something you’ve started, or something you’ve only dreamed about working on. Our institutional memory as students is short—without help, we’ll all have to recognize and challenge things at the same pace you did.
Senior Stefani Jones is DSG President. Her column is the seventh and last installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of Duke Student Government. Send Stefani a message on Twitter @DukeStudentGov.