My first moments at Duke are documented by a blurry photo of the Keohane fire lane. Taken on impulse as an oh-so-eager freshman looking to preserve his first memories of Duke, the photo is dated August 4, 2013, marking when I came to participate in the pre-orientation program Project Search. Although seemingly mundane, it is a memento of the transformation Duke has brought into my life in just this past year.
Most of my peers are surprised to find out that I hadn’t visited campus before committing to Duke, and they are even more so when I tell them I was an Early Decision applicant. Granted, the last few weeks before departing for college were inundated with worries and fears. How would I make new friends? Would I even be able to make new friends? How do you pronounce Coach K’s last name? What is it like having seasons year-round? In retrospect, the humidity and the heat were appalling, all my Midwestern friends scoffed at my blatant inability to gauge what cold really meant and quite frankly, some parts of winter were absolutely unbearable. Yet my bold decision to apply and commit to Duke was rooted in the same reason as my fears—Duke meant change.
Growing up in an immaculate suburb in Southern California, I was surrounded by the same familiar faces for over ten years. My life was devoid of any exposure to realistic socioeconomic diversity, except for the rare visits to homeless shelters with my church or a community service club at school. I was exposed culturally to the same spectrum of ethnicity and political stances. Back home, we call our town “a bubble” and, to be honest, I wanted to escape.
As a mere sophomore with only two semesters under my belt, I will gladly spare you any cliché sentiments about how Duke turned my entire life around, because that would be simply false. Instead, Duke exposed me to the wide breadth of perspectives everyone has to offer. My friends back home always ask me what my favorite part of Duke is. Much to their dismay, I do not reply with “watching basketball in Cameron Stadium” or “Marketplace brunch.” As much as I love both of these aspects, my answer to the question is always the same—the people.
The people at Duke have amazed me since day one. The eclectic amalgam of academic passions, hobbies and beliefs—even just amongst my close friends—has left me utterly speechless. They have challenged my own perceptions and beliefs beyond just an intellectual curiosity. Regardless of major or personal background, I have found my peers to be eager to engage themselves and spur conversations regarding topics ranging from politics to religion to philosophy. The comfort at which such seemingly controversial topics are debated is a constant reminder of the safe and stimulating environment Duke fosters.
Just recently, over a casual meal at Chai’s, a good friend of mine brought up the topic of life as a cross-cultural individual. We discussed the difficulties we faced in “fitting in” with specific social groups due to our Asian-American identity. The conversation revolved around our own experiences living life with one foot in our Asian heritage and the other in our desire to be American, comparing such experiences in high school versus college. Although the conversation was cut short due to the busy lives we all face as Duke students, it reminded me of the genuine passion and inquisitive nature of Duke students and their willingness to explore such remarkable topics—even over a bowl of pad thai.
People are instinctually hesitant when confronted with the possibility of change— rightly so, because change is frightening. We seek comfort in what we know and naively convince ourselves into a state of satisfaction when regarding our growth as intellectuals and human beings. We are often in a state of tunnel-vision, where we come to Duke with a premeditated plan for what our next four years will produce. Consumed by our hectic personal agendas, we unknowingly close ourselves off from any external influences at a great cost.
The late-night conversations on the Quad or the intense discussions in the common room in which my friends and I tackled topics ranging from homosexuality to feminism to the vexing question of what we were all doing with our lives were some of my favorite freshman year memories. My peers have challenged me to widen my perspective and always question and aspire towards more. Furthermore, I have never been so eager to learn and, more importantly, continue to be changed by everything and everyone. Such growth has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my college career.
For you freshmen who have yet to breach the superficial conversational boundaries beyond name, dorm, major and whether you are pre-med or not, I sincerely hope you utilize Duke for more than its outstanding academic credentials and delve yourself into the community. Duke University is a perpetually evolving institution both physically, as proven by the cranes that make our chapel Instagram a struggle, as well as metaphysically, through the student body’s wide mosaic of beliefs and personalities. Assert your beliefs, welcome others’ opinions, but, most importantly, never be afraid of change.