The independent news organization of Duke University

Who are you?

I recently attended a panel discussion held by the Baldwin Scholars program titled “Inhabiting the Frontier.” It was focused on spurring conversations about failure and the related themes of honestly, self-awareness and tenacity.

As we enter second semester, I have found it to be a fitting time to think about what failure means to each of us. Is failure the small frustrations, the little inconveniences? Is it the academic shortfalls in grades or the social shortcomings in rush for Greek life and Selective Living Groups?

Those were the types of failures I was expecting to talk about at the panel, but instead I heard a discussion on a topic I wasn’t prepared for—failure in self.

As I walked home in the bitter raining cold that is apparently North Carolina weather, I couldn’t help feeling a nagging sense of paranoia. One-eighth of my college experience is gone and I feel no closer to figuring out my future or having anything close to an epiphany.

Why do we feel so lost? I believe the problem stems from the expectation that college is about our finding passion in academic life, which will ultimately culminate in major and future career track. It’s a struggle that we all share—but what if there is more to that search. What if we’re supposed to figuring out who we are as individual members of society, finding our niche and purpose?

There is a growing body of concern that universities across the country are losing their purpose and instead turning into pipelines. Instead of becoming intellectual havens for students, critics claim that universities have turned into a path to a well-paying job and a secure future. Many blame pre-professional tracks and programs while others blame Netflix and the other distractions of the Internet.

Either way, I found this kind of conversations to be unnerving. Of course, there are many spaces to be reflective on campus, but I wasn’t sure that I had been engaging in more personal reflection.

I recognized the distinction between the questions I had been asking and am now asking. The question “What do you want to do?” has morphed into “Who do you want to be?”

I don’t know.

This new question doesn’t have comfortable, rational answers like, “I’m considering dance because I’m passionate about ballet,” or “I love science, so I’m probably going to study biomedical engineering.”

The question raises a sense of urgency that always seems to be present in those who are hungry for purpose.

Our new challenge is to be constantly aware of how our actions impact us and ultimately shape ourselves into the people we want to be. How do we do make this shift in our framework though?

Amy Unell, an alumnus and active member on campus, shared a strategy for doing this she learned from her mother, “Pay attention to your intentions.”

Spend some time alone. Learn to comfortable by yourself. Maybe we lose a part of our intellectual life when we are constantly running around in our various academic and social commitments. I don’t know if it is Netflix or Twitter that is to blame, but I’ve realized that I don’t spend much time completely alone.

Being alone gives us space to think about ourselves and process all the interactions and activities we engage in on a daily basis. Whether it is the time you spend sitting on the bus or the time you have before you fall asleep, try to carve some time out just for you to be alone with your thoughts. It could go a long way in answering these questions.

These are abstract concepts—failure means something different to each of us and we all seek different experiences from the four years we spend on campus. Regardless, I hope to more actively seek a Duke experience that allows me to challenge who I am and build a strong sense of individuality and purpose.

Shruti Rao is a trinity freshman. This is her first column of the semester.


Share and discuss “Who are you?” on social media.