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What I could not predict

By my senior year of high school, I had been to Duke to visit my sisters numerous times, and as a result, I had spent far more time at Duke than at any other school I was considering. I decided to apply early decision because I thought I could envision what my four years would be like, and I couldn’t do that for other schools.

But in reality, I could not have predicted what my college experience would be like—both the good and the bad.

I thought I would read the campus newspaper every so often, not that I would oversee all news photos as The Chronicle’s News Photo editor.

I thought I would only attend the freshmen activities fair once, not that I would return four years later as Chronicle Recruitment Chair and recite the same pitch for hours to freshmen who probably just wanted the free sticker and pen.

I definitely did not think I would have the opportunity to shoot President Obama not once but twice (shooting is photo speak for “taking pictures of,” NSA).

I thought I would walk past girls in their crest-embossed quarter zips tabling on the plaza for their philanthropy, not that I would be one of them. I thought my days of cheering and hanging out with 100+ girls were over when I left summer camp.

I was able to accomplish what I once feared was impossible—showing my family new sides of Duke when they came to visit. Sides of Duke that were untapped by any May family members that came before me. Sides of Duke in which I ultimately had influence. Sides of Duke that made it mine.

Just as I could not have predicted some of the amazing and rewarding organizations I would be involved with and people I would get to know at Duke, I also didn’t know my experience would come with crippling obstacles.

I had a pretty serious case of mono day one of O-week. Now, with mono, there exists a spectrum of side effects—you can be so unaffected you never even know you have the virus, or you can turn into a jaundiced linebacker who cannot sleep because your liver and spleen have tripled in size. I was dealt the latter of side effects. This made it very hard to keep up with what was expected of me as a Duke student.

So I met with my dean to work out a plan. I was told I could go on medical leave or basically suck it up. Well, Duke’s medical leave policy is pretty strict: “Students placed on medical leaves may return after two semesters following the semester in which the leave is granted.” I was astounded that the dean was not willing to be more flexible or at least evaluate each student on a case-by-case basis. I knew I would be very sick for at least a few more weeks, but I was not willing to delay my Duke career by a year before it even began. I turned down that option, really my only option, and thankfully with the support of my parents I trucked through the first semester.

At the end of my sophomore year, I was struck by the paralyzing news that my best friend from home had suddenly passed away. I was just days away from wrapping up the year and taking my finals, but mentally, I was not capable of finishing the year. I wasn’t sleeping; I wasn’t going more than a half hour without hysterically crying; and I wasn’t in a healthy mental state to be at Duke. I knew I needed to go home, but I also knew—from my mono experience and dealing with deaths in the family—that Duke was not always flexible when dealing with health issues, mental or physical. I met with my major dean to explain my situation, barely able to get out the words, but she showed minimal sympathy and did not leave me with the sense that Duke was looking out for me. With the help of my mom serving as my advocate when I no longer had the energy to fight with Duke and my understanding professors who were willing to make accommodations for me over the summer, I was able to finally finish sophomore year. Not because of mental health policies put in place, but in spite of them.

I wish I did not have to get to know Duke’s dark side and that I could simply advise everyone to “get out of the Duke bubble” and “take classes that challenge them,” but my column would not be an honest representation of myself if I did not also include what made college difficult along with what made it fulfilling. I know that articles like this one have started the conversation about Duke’s medical leave policy, and I strongly hope the conversations continue.

Julia is a Trinity senior, current news photo editor and recruitment chair. She would like to thank everyone in ChronPhoto, Pegram and Zeta (and anyone at Duke who does not fall into the three facets of her life that make it easy to acknowledge them) for their role in making Duke an incredible and unique experience. For always being there, for the good and the bad, her mom deserves endless thanks.


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