Column: Returning to the Duke bubble

As my stay in Australia comes to an end, I find myself reminiscing about what I've learned during these past few months. Yes, it sounds like the trite opening line to a college admissions essay, but this 20,000-mile distance away from home has brought on many new perspectives. Most importantly, it's been a reality check about Duke and the social bubble in which we live.

Don't get me wrong: I love Duke and I know there's no college where I'd be happier. But, having broken free of the gothic brick walls, it's become clear that our campus is not a social utopia. People are hypercritical of themselves and of others. Our sheltered lives are focused on trivial details that give us small indication of the life we're expected to lead after graduation.

I'm just as guilty as the rest. I put on my sundress and stand in a parking lot full of kegs for tailgates. I get psyched for themed mixers and putting on costumes most likely bought from Thrift World or Party City. I thoughtlessly swipe my DukeCard for meals, laundry and books. And I mistakenly consider this an independent life.

We pay little attention to the fact that everything is provided for us on campus. Our dorms are cleaned, food is available all the time. Hell, we can eat at the Washington Duke on points-we're hooked up like no other students I know!

All we have to do is get ourselves to class. Yes, Duke can be about as real as The Real World. Sydney, however, gave me a preview of what independence is actually like.

Australia was, in a word, relaxed. People were not stressing over wardrobe rotation and date functions. Life was not a drama-ridden imitation of Felicity. In Sydney, issues were paying rent, signing leases and being the only one responsible for yourself. Plans to go out at night were not a military-like project complete with time coordinates, but inconsequential details of an adult life.

The people I met were truly diverse. I'm not referring to racial or ethnic identity, but rather that every student was not a high school overachiever with a good GPA and SAT scores.

The students at university here are not on our "Game of Life" plan that goes something like: college, grad school, job with $100,000 + bonus, marriage, kids, pets. Many of my Australian friends have spent years working their way through Europe before considering higher education. Some of the guys I met from Europe are fresh off their compulsory military service and starting college in their early 20s.

They take life as it comes, and are in no rush to settle in now, work on their golf game and wait for retirement. Perhaps the most important distinction is that people in Australia are not quick to place you into some superficial category. No one is concerned about which greek letters I wear or which fraternity I hang out with. Life outside class is not wasted talking about other people-something Duke girls seem to be bred to do.

This change has also been positive for meeting other Duke students, not just people from other parts of the globe. I've gotten to know several Dukies whom I would have never known on campus. They have become friends, rather than people I would have randomly met one night and occasionally said "hi" to in line at Alpine.

Outside the social bubble we were able to put aside the judgmental vices that we've developed over the past three years.

So, having been on my own now, it makes me wonder how I will readjust to life back on campus. Will I slide right back into the superficial conventions? Am I going to return to a life where getting asked to big-time formals like Lei Party are all that's important?

Not gonna happen. Granted, I'll still go to date functions and mixers; I'll still put on a sundress to go stand in the Blue lots. I will still participate in the social scene, but I will not play into the system and be defined by it.

When I get back inside the bubble, it will be with greater understanding and appreciation of Duke and its dysfunctional social environment. I'm leaving my southern Pacific paradise with one thought in mind: I've only got three semesters left and I'm going to enjoy them to the fullest. College may be a sheltered existence; it may be a melodramatic scene instead of real independence. But these are, without question, the best years of your life.


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