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FAREWELL COLUMN: Finding community

The summer before my freshman year was filled with a mix of excitement and dread as I daydreamed about the legions of new best friends I would make at Duke but also wondered if I might not just be incredibly lonely. I was the only person from my high school to even apply to Duke, and perhaps the only one to venture south of the Mason-Dixon line, so I didn't quite know what I would be getting into.

But then one night, I took a break from playing Tetris, went to check my e-mail, and there it was. A ready-made group of new Duke best friends. That night, I became a member of the Duke Class of 2004 e-mail list. After crafting the requisite dorky profile (which unfortunately is still one of the first hits for a Google search of my name), I began exchanging e-mails and IMs with future Dukies from all over the country and spent the rest of the summer happily anticipating meeting my new friends.

When I actually arrived at Duke, I had a bit of a rude awakening--it turned out that great IM conversations do not necessarily translate into wonderful face-to-face interactions. (A word of caution to any would-be online daters). I found the first few weeks of school painfully lonely, especially when it seemed that everyone around me was quickly making the new best friends I so coveted. Not yet ready to give up on the e-mail list, I decided to try one more face-to-face meeting, this time with a fellow aspiring journalist at The Chronicle's open house. We rode over on the bus from East, eyeing each other warily, each too shy to initiate conversation.

We finally introduced ourselves after entering The Chronicle office and it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. That meeting spawned a tradition of attending Chronicle events together, which resulted in our getting to know a group of quirky people whose intense dedication to the paper made the late nights in the office fun.

I remember my freshman roommate asking incredulously why I spent so much at The Chronicle office if I was not getting paid. And another acquaintance remarking on my decision to write for the City/State department my sophomore year: "But those are the stories nobody reads!" Clearly, you don't choose to write for The Chronicle for the glory. However, there is a definite sense of pride in being so central to campus debates, in creating and quelling controversy, and of course, in personally knowing the elusive Rolly of Staff Box fame. In a school that is often attacked for a culture of anti-intellectualism, The Chronicle office has served as a place where ideas flow freely about politics, journalistic ethics and a host of other topics. Granted, some might question whether debate about the form and function of the male thong falls into the category of intellectual discourse, but the same question might be asked of some courses taught here as well.

As evidenced by the fact that I still haven't given my $20.04, and don't really plan to any time soon, I do not feel very strong ties to Duke as a whole. But The Chronicle has provided me with a community that I will definitely miss. Unlike the mandated fun of freshman year or the new system of linked housing, this community is totally organic and, I would argue, much more meaningful. Thus I would encourage the administration to spend less time trying to spoon feed students a pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all form of community, and put more effort into encouraging students to find their own passions and form their own groups--whether through increased funding for student organizations, or simply fewer rules about how and where students socialize.

My experience with the e-mail list (and a truly miserable week of sorority rush) showed me that it is impossible to pluck a group of friends out of thin air. Though I considered transferring during that lonely first semester, I resigned myself to sticking around mainly because I did not want to endure another lonely first semester at a new school. By opening up and taking risks, I managed to find people to whom I was truly able to relate, and got over my freshman unhappiness.

I found in my four years here that this proactive strategy applied to many frustrations I have had about this school, and thus the main advice I have to offer is that Duke is what you make it. There are amazing students here, inspiring, dedicated professors and even plenty to do off campus if you make the effort. To those who complain about The Chronicle, come write! Once you get past the inevitable trash bag of empty beer cans (and in the case of this year's editor, quite a few Smirnoff Ice bottles), the door to 301 Flowers is always open.

As far as more general complaints about Duke, it's important to remember that despite being something of a bubble, this school is in many ways a microcosm of the 'real world.' Unfortunately, many of Duke's problems--'effortless perfection,' racial tension, anti-intellectualism--exist outside the Gothic Wonderland as well. Learning to confront and deal with them here will better prepare us for dealing with these and other challenges beyond the campus walls.

Ruth Carlitz is a Trinity senior and managing editor of TowerView.


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