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Did I pick the right college?

(jacob wolff)Flying back to school after Spring Break always brings out the worst in people.  Due to the fact that professors and students have irreconcilably different definitions of  "Spring Break" (professors think it’s the perfect time to assign extra work, while students see the word ‘break’ and space out for a week), most of us find our trips back to Duke and the piles of work that await rather gloomy.

My flight back to Durham this Saturday night was no different.  I spent a lot of my break dealing with summer internship stuff, so I could literally hear my books beckoning grimly from my dorm room.  Though I tried my hardest to fall asleep (thus putting off work even longer), the rather loud and talkative people around me kept me up.  I eventually gave up on sleep and engaged in the more rewarding experience of eavesdropping (before you judge, realize it’s impossible not to eavesdrop on a plane).

I quickly found out I had unknowingly sat myself right behind a group of girls from UNC returning from their Spring Break in Las Vegas, and in front of ten or so students from Appalachian State who were coming back from volunteering on an Indian reservation.

I have to admit, it was really interesting listening to their conversations (again, I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but you can’t really help it).  For a while, I was enthralled listening to the UNC girls giggle about about their sexual exploits.  Though the Appalachian State kids' conversation wasn’t as juicy, they seemed to be having just as much fun.  But something didn’t feel right… and eventually it dawned upon me: these people all seemed genuinely happy.

I was shocked.  Coming back from Spring Break, shouldn’t they be just as sad as I was?  But instead of wallowing in despair, they were all smiling.  When the pilot (must have been a Duke fan) got on the intercom to rub that day's UNC loss in a bit, the UNC girls booed and laughed and joked around.  The Appalachian State kids spent the whole flight goofing around, and even somehow convinced the airplane staff to let them hand out the snacks and collect the garbage (not my idea of fun, but they seemed to be having a good time).

Nothing sparks an introspective meander into one’s mind like a nice bout of turbulence.  Though everyone knows planes are safer than cars, when that plane’s a rockin’, the regrets come a knockin’.  So when our plane hit a rough patch of weather, I started to wonder if I had made the right choice to come to Duke (OK…  first I thought about who would come to my funeral, then I thought about my college choice).  I mean, here I was, a depressed Dukie, blue as could be, yet for these other kids, it seemed Spring Break was just starting.

I’ll admit, I’ve questioned my choice of coming to Duke more than a couple of times.   Anyone who tells you they haven’t wondered at least once if they should have gone somewhere else is a liar (aside from a few uber-Dukies).  So as I’m sitting on this plane, I start to think, why didn’t I go somewhere else?  If I went to UNC, or Appalachian State, maybe I could be as happy as these other kids right now.  Thus the despondency grew.

The gloominess stuck with me all flight.  I couldn’t shake it... once you start questioning the foundations of the last three years of your life, it’s tough to think of anything else.    When I got back to my dorm, I was feeling nostalgic (when you feel sad, you long for the “good ol’ days” I suppose).  I was flipping through old Facebook photo albums and a realization hit me.   As I was looking at old high school pictures and thinking about what colleges my friends in the photos were at now, I didn’t wonder whether their school was big or small, liberal or conservative, public or private, party school or academically oriented, etc.  In fact, I didn’t really define them by their colleges at all.   Frankly, I defined them as friends.

Those people on the plane weren’t happy because they went to UNC, or because they went to Appalachian State.  They were happy because they were with real friends.   Now of course, perhaps UNC or Appalachian State, or Duke for that matter, may have a tendency to attract a certain type of person, and thus there may be more or less people there who share common interests with you, but that’s not the whole story.  Generalizing an entire student body can make it very easy to blame one’s sorrow on the fact that a school is “really conservative” or “dominated by the Greek scene.”   To a certain degree, these arguments have merit.  But I think I’ve realized that Duke, like most schools, is diverse enough that anyone can find a niche.  It may be more difficult for some, but the fact is, at Duke there is a set of great friends for everyone. Would my life be different if I had gone to UNC?  Of course it would. But somewhere there is a sad UNC student sitting behind a group of Dukies laughing about their Spring Break on a plane back to school. School choice only matters so much.

Now I’m not trying to sound like a tacky Duke admissions packet, but college truly is what you make of it.  The next time you find yourself wondering if you went to the right college… a better question might be whether or not you joined the right clubs, started a conversation with that kid next to you in class or really put yourself out there at the school you’re at now. Although choosing the right school for you is important, making the most of the one you picked will define just how glum you feel on your next flight back from Spring Break.

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