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Outside the bubble

This past Spring Break was more for me than a chance to go home, flop down on the couch and enjoy palatable food and reliable, decent cable TV service. It turned out to be an intellectual journey, as well (read: I managed to wrench a column topic out of it).

Spending the amount of time on this campus that I do, it tends to be enlightening to go home and reenter the rest of society (for example, did you know that companies other than the North Face manufacture fleece products?). It reminds you that the world is a bit bigger than the third-floor reading room of Bostock.

Encountering "outsiders" also led me to consider how Duke is perceived outside of our little bubble. Our perennially preeminent place in the March basketball tournament proved conducive to my research, which was conducted mostly in bars around the Philadelphia area.

At Amtrack's 30th Street Station, I struck up a conversation with a young gentleman who had graduated from Villanova. We didn't discuss Duke for very long, other than to have him establish that instead of being directly off 95, our campus is in fact quite a fir piece on a tree-lined road through the middle of nowhere. If I had been hoping for a glowing assessment of my academic institution, I was not to find it here-but I also wasn't subjected to the "f- Duke" mentality I secretly had been hoping for.

The other benefit of going to a top-seeded school is encountering player-hating friends from home, who relish a discussion about by whom Duke will be knocked out of the tournament. I was listening to typically intelligent banter of this nature in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia when a perfect stranger approached our table, apparently having honed in at the mention of Duke. His input was to criticize Demarcus Nelson's lackluster play, to which I (being relatively unfamiliar with the particular statistics involved) mumbled something vague about the hurdles of an injury and subsequent recovery.

And that was that. Frustratingly, the man made no mention of our recently completed, multimillion-dollar engineering complex. Nothing lackluster about it.

My next encounter occurred over a beer in Philadelphia International Airport on my return trip. The Duke-GW game was on at the time, and, as we were somewhat housing them, I was naturally inclined to make mention of where I happen to attend university. My companion this time, a middle-aged fellow from Tennessee, informed me that he hadn't been to college. But he was making more money than his two sisters who had. I bet that's what my father likes to hear.

In any event, I got on my plane, satisfied by my $8 Bass and our win. The lady in the seat next to me, who was probably in her mid-to-late eighties, told me that her granddaughter was in graduate school somewhere in North Carolina, although she had a bit of trouble remembering the name of the institution. When she described it as "the big, important university," I helpfully offered Chapel Hill as a suggestion-what modesty! Of course, as I had been hoping with all my might, she told me no. Next, ever so meekly, I mentioned dear old Duke. That was the one.

It wasn't until later that I started to wonder just how big and important we could be if we were so forgettable-albeit by an octogenarian. Would she have forgotten the name of the big, important university in Cambridge?

Even after my weeklong inquiry, I'm still at a loss as to what Duke means to people outside Duke. We make frequent mention of our "peer institutions" (and by "we" here, I mean anyone who writes for The Chronicle; the phrase shows up in almost 200 of the articles in the archives). But what are they? If you're talking about the upper echelon of the Ivy League, I'm a little dubious. Can we consider places that were founded decades before the U.S. Constitution was drafted our peers? We could just be a really good southern school. But the other good southern schools might beg to differ-too many Jersey accents.

I'm hesitant to conclude we're simply an annoying, pretentious basketball powerhouse to some, and a vaguely, forgettably important school in the South to others. But I also struggle to find a substitute assessment. And maybe this is where our uniqueness lies-a recognizable name, but an elusive identity.

David Kleban is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Thursday.

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