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A call to affiliated upperclassmen

Recruitment season on campus is about to come to a close for Greek life and SLGs, leaving many students with voices inaudible above a whisper and a deep desire for nothing but their pillows after a marathon of all-nighters having nothing to do with homework... Most articles with a leading sentence such as this one would normally begin giving the new incoming members advice right about now, but I am going to switch things up and give advice to those who have already had a year or more with their organization.

I want each of you to remember what it was like on your own bid day walking into a room of your new sisters, brothers and affiliates. Recall what it was like to only have had a single semester under your belt—less than four months to establish yourself and find your place on campus. Remember how intimidating you found the older peers within your organization? Your excitement to meet new people and make this place your home? I want you to remember what you were hoping for from the upperclassmen in that moment, and I want you to be that for the current incoming underclassmen now that the roles have been reversed.

As an older student, it is easy to forget that we possess one of the world’s greatest super powers—the ability to make those that look up to us feel really good about themselves with little to no effort on our part. Often it just takes a lunch invite, a compliment on a recent achievement or generally taking someone under our wing. Do not let that superpower go to waste—particularly in an environment like Duke, which can break down younger students trying to figure out how to redefine their identities in such a new, competitive, over-achieving context. Think of the struggles you went through early on in your Duke career, and perhaps are still fighting now, and do not be afraid to share what you have learned from those experiences with them.

To me, this is at the core of truly effective mentorship—not simply giving advice or lending a listening ear—but sharing your own vulnerabilities so that those who look up to you are able to realize they do not have to be flawless to be considered successful. They can make blunders and still be someone others look up to. I think this is a concept that is particularly difficult for most young women of our generation to understand, especially when considering that recent studies have found that women tend to leave college with less self-esteem than they came in with.

I could spend plenty of time speculating on why this is, but I would rather draw attention to the harmful consequences that can follow as a result. For example, upon entering the job market, women with same level credentials as men are much less likely to feel as qualified to go after certain job positions—which also means they are less likely to apply for these positions and subsequently less likely to move their careers forward as quickly. Women are also much more likely to experience what Dr. Peggy McIntosh calls "Imposter Syndrome," or feeling like a fraud when praised for accomplishments. Author of Lean In Sheryl Sandberg notes, "Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, [we] feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made." I believe this comes from not having enough female mentors to ease us into new roles and challenges. Without anyone to consult, it is easy to feel like making a single blunder means you are not good enough to be where you are, instead of focusing on all the things you have done right that prove you are more than qualified.

I think this is because we tend to fall into the trap of the effortless perfection myth or the having-it-all myth. We assume that, in order to succeed, we must be the exception to the rule and that, in order to be the exception, we can be nothing less than perfect. We evaluate ourselves like an exam where we start with 100 points and each time we get a question wrong, our score goes down. Instead, we should be scoring ourselves more like a basketball game where we are constantly putting points on the board. Maybe we miss a lay-up every now and then, but we always have the opportunity to steal the ball back. There is fluidity and momentum in this view, rather than staggering fear of making one wrong move that I think many bright young women on this campus run into at one point or another.

Because we tend to have less female mentors—and for females of color this becomes even more of an issue—in positions of power, this makes sororities and SLGs all the more important for supplying examples of powerful female leaders and mentors. Mentorship imparts a way of seeing oneself on to the mentee—and the way one sees oneself then impacts identity, which impacts self worth, which impacts things like sense of personal agency, the standards to which one holds oneself and the types of love one accepts from others. If we, as upperclassmen, only put forth the vibe that we have always had everything figured out, those who look up to us will assume that because they do not have everything figured out that they cannot accomplish what we have accomplished. So the next time you see or hang out with your newly affiliated group members, I urge you to be fully and completely yourself. It may leave you feeling a bit exposed at times, but ultimately it gives others permission to feel comfortable enough to be fully themselves as well—and what greater gift can you offer than that?

Cara Peterson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every Wednesday.

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