Knowing when Duke's not normal

It was five o’clock on a brisk October morning, and I was sitting on the steps to a teammate’s apartment complex. I’d already called him three or four times and called his roommate once—neither had answered. I was supposed to be giving him a ride to the airport; we were heading to New Haven for a tournament and had to catch a seven o’clock flight. I called one of our other teammates, and she responded, “He’s probably just passed out drunk somewhere. If I were you, I’d go to the airport without him.” And without a second thought, I took her advice and left for the airport alone.

While this was happening, Drew was unconscious, with two collapsed lungs, in a stairwell behind the Marketplace. He wouldn’t be found until later that morning, and he died the next day.

There are lots of benign reasons why a student wouldn’t be where he was supposed to be at five in the morning. He might have set his alarm for 4:30 p.m. instead of a.m., or he may not have realized his phone was set on silent. The best guess for where a Duke student might be if he’s failed to show up somewhere at five in the morning is safe, asleep, in bed.

I wouldn’t feel ashamed if my teammate had told me: “He probably just forgot to set an alarm. If I were you, I’d go to the airport without him,” and then I left for the airport. But I left thinking the most likely explanation was that he was passed out drunk, and I didn’t even think that was weird. There is nothing I could have done to prevent what happened to a great guy I didn’t know all that well, but I feel guilt about treating as normal something that I shouldn’t have treated as normal.

To routinely get really, really drunk isn’t uncommon for students at Duke, and it’s no secret that in some communities at Duke, routinely getting really, really drunk is the norm. Most Duke students who routinely get really, really drunk will graduate without suffering any significant consequences, significantly taper off their drinking when they enter the “real world,” and let that be that. But because routinely getting really, really drunk is so common at Duke, we’re left unable to clearly differentiate between those among our friends for whom drinking has become a serious problem in their lives, or those who are drinking as a result of other serious problems in their lives. Before Drew died, if you’d told me that anyone I knew over the age of 22 was “probably just passed out drunk somewhere,” I would have been seriously concerned for her well-being and would’ve thought she needed help. Why had Duke so quickly changed my standards for what was normal?

If I could offer other Duke students one single piece of advice—both for how to get the most out of the seemingly unbounded opportunities here and for how to maximize one’s chances of making it out of this school without lasting physical or emotional scars—it’s to step back every once and awhile ask: “How would I have reacted to this event before I was a Duke student?”

It is amazing how quickly we come to take for granted how special Duke can be. In my years at Duke, I have ridden a hot air balloon on the East Campus quad, met two cabinet secretaries, been the student of one of my favorite authors and gotten feedback on my writing from some of my favorite journalists. Things that would have been the highlight of my month or year as a high school student happen at least once a week at Duke—and the main reason why these things don’t happen every single day is because I have to pass my classes and at least occasionally clean my bathroom.

Your values might evolve as a Dukie. You might become more liberal or more conservative or more of a radical. More or less religious. You might change majors or hobbies. If you don’t change at all, you probably haven’t really had an education. But students also change in more specific, and sometimes insidious, ways. They change their ideas about money and class, about sex, relationships and family. They change their sleep schedules and their very definitions of what it means to be successful and what it means to live a good life. Maybe “change” is too strong of a word because we aren’t directly comparing two alternative worldviews and actively selecting the better one; we morph into people our high school selves might not have recognized, without even realizing that it’s happening.

If you’re a 2017er, I’d sit down this summer and ask yourself as many specific questions as possible about friendships, money, careers, learning and community obligations, so that you’ll be able to compare your “befores” and “afters” while you’re at Duke. So you can identify how you’re changing—and reverse changes in yourself you’re not happy with. If you’re a current student, take time to acknowledge all the ways in which Duke is not normal.

Elena Botella is a Trinity senior. This is her final column of the semester. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenabotella.


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