Having stumbled out of a dorm that was not mine and into the too-bright sunlight a solid half-hour before the buses began their slog between East and West Campuses, I had no choice but to walk back to my own room. The wind was brisk, forcing me to wrap myself up in the only warm piece of clothing I had on my person—a penguin suit. As I climbed Erwin Road's hill on its way to the safety of West Campus, where several other journeys somewhat similar to my own were doubtlessly happening, a maroon Jaguar passed by me. The driver, likely a fellow student, slowed, rolled down his window and gave me a bemused wave. Imitating a waddle and flashing a sheepish smile, I waved my flipper-clad hand back. I figured I had to accept my status as an anomaly, since the comfort of my own room was still twenty minutes away.
When members of a penguin colony prepare to enter the sea for a hunt, they jostle each other around in an attempt to force one of their own to enter the water before the rest, an effective method of determining if any predators lurk just out of sight. This first penguin, like me, generally takes the plunge unwillingly and with much trepidation until it deems the waters safe or dies in the jaws of a leopard seal.
Like penguins, us Duke students must inevitably leave the safety of our iceberg, albeit one designed in the Collegiate Gothic style, in search of the fish—the terminal degrees and careers—needed to sustain our minds and bodies. Furthermore, we are loath to break apart from one another and dive into the frigid waters of the real world alone. Instead, we depart in packs along well-trod paths to places such as University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Medical School, Goldman Sachs, the Boston Consulting Group and Teach for America. While these deeply ingrained migratory routes ensure our bank accounts remain relatively full and futures stay exceptionally bright, are they truly necessary given how evolved we are as students and people?
Across all species of the animal kingdom, strength lies in numbers—the lone penguin is easy prey to the orca just as the idealistic tech entrepreneur is for a rival Fortune 500 firm. Taking either one out for the count and damning him or her to irrelevancy or death is a simple task, and we know it. Thus, we latch onto the big players and never let go, trading the opportunity to innovate and follow our passions for dental benefits and a clear-cut career trajectory. Whether we have student loans to repay at 4 percent interest or a sense of obligation to continue along the path of high achievement that got us into Duke in the first place, we flock to the familiar, the waypoints that stand up and announce for us “I’m a success!”
While unwillingness to part from the crowd is undeniably a beneficial trait to have when standing on the edge of an ice floe mere yards away from large carnivores’ watchful eyes, I have yet to find myself in such a situation. Our campus provides us with myriad opportunities, yet we then proceed to follow incredibly similar paths upon graduating; almost one quarter of 2011 graduates found work in the financial sector, while 13 percent of the class of 2009 applied to medical school.
How can students aspire to eat something other than Antarctic fish and reach for the highest fruits of the jungle’s tallest trees? Fortunately, the infrastructure already exists. The Duke Start-Up Challenge draws some 100 entrants each year. The Duke Student Initiative on Social Entrepreneurship works to increase community exposure to the field through events and networking opportunities. The Global Health Institute exposes its pupils to the world of non-governmental organizations via case studies and civic engagement programs. The natural next step is to promote these opportunities until they yield results, be they an increase in the number of students eschewing offers from Big Three management consulting firms in favor of a position at a fledging mobile application development company or more students becoming public school teachers instead of joining Teach for America as a stepping stone to a Wharton MBA. Duke students are young people with a dizzying array talents and desires, not identical-looking, flightless birds that depend on herd behavior for survival. We should be more willing to depart from the pack, to be that first penguin striking out into the water.
Tom Vosburgh is a Trinity junior. This is his first column of the semester.