During convocation my freshman year, President Brodhead said, “If there’s one thing you can expect for certain, it’s uncertainty. Learn to love it.” I sat there and thought, “Wow, that’s so brilliant,” without fully soaking in that his advice would actually require some form of action from me. It’s one thing to say, “We must replace our fear of the unknown with a curiosity for it,” and nod our heads in agreement. It’s another thing entirely to actually bring ourselves to do it.
Which is why, despite such spot on advice, I entered into undergrad trying my best to stick to the plan I had created for myself. I came to Duke the way I imagine a lot of us did—with proud affirmations of my success and potential. “You are great and Duke is great and you are going to learn great things about how to save the world and then you are going to go out there and do it!” Simple enough, right?
I didn’t realize that there were all these things in the middle, that saving the world was somewhat complicated and that the roadmap I had so clearly laid out for myself actually involved a whole lot of unknowns between point A and point B. Not only that, but Duke was this high speed environment pushing down the accelerator a bit further than I was ready to handle. As a result, I missed a good number of turns, forgot to use my blinker every now and then and may have gotten into a fender bender or two. My life here did not go according to plan. It was the first time things honest to goodness did not go exactly according to plan.
Of course, in the moments themselves, I viewed each of these missteps as terrible things. I was supposed to have full control! My route was supposed to look a specific way. I had put the address in my GPS and it was dictating to me its ideal route in that calm and soothing British accent, but these crazy roadblocks and confusing signage kept popping up out of nowhere. My entire Duke career can be summed up in one word: recalculating.
Because of this, I have struggled to make sense of my time at Duke. In many ways, it has looked nothing the way I thought it would. This may seem like a strange thing to say in my final column. Usually these pieces tend to be about all the wonderful memories Duke has given people, the happy ever after, the tie it all together synopsis of our time here. But that seems just a little too all-or-nothing for me. I made a promise to keep this column nothing short of honest. And the honest answer is that my Duke experience had brought me the highest highs but also the lowest lows.
I think a good number of the lows boiled down to lofty expectations—clear set routes from which I was not planning on deviating. It’s hard not to have high expectations for college when people tell you over and over again, “College is the best four years of your life.” It’s even harder not to have high expectations when going to a fantastic school like Duke, having given up so many hours of our lives studying and working towards getting in. You feel like you deserve so much and that entitlement—which is what it is—is dangerous. Particularly when you don’t leave room for the uncertainty Brodhead so keenly warned us of at convocation.
We live in a #YOLO, #NoRegrets generation with Facebook and Twitter displaying only the happiest moments of everyone’s lives. We go to school on a campus where effortless perfection runs rampant and everyone paints the picture that they have it all figured out. The expectations I created for my Duke experience did not seem like some ridiculous fantasy when they had been made to seem the norm by everyone around me. Of course I was going to enjoy every minute of the social scene, fall in love with every one of my classes and teachers, maintain the perfect body, meet the man of my dreams and get my dream job before graduating. All par for the course, right? So when I didn’t achieve this level of excellence, I felt both that I was a failure and that I had been failed by some greater system.
In figuring out how to deal with these sometimes painful emotions, I have come to two conclusions. First, there is a huge difference between failure and disappointment. Second, psychological studies show that we tend to feel loss more deeply than we do gains of an equal size. When you are focused on the five things you expected and are lamenting over the one or two that didn’t go your way, it is incredibly easy to forget the 15 things Duke gave you that you never in a million years could have even imagined happening.
Uncertainty does not have to be a negative. Often times, the plans and expectations we have are actually limiting us without our realization. Every moment of recalculation along our journeys could actually be a moment where things reach a whole level we could have never dreamed. For example, a running injury that kept me from participating in club sports forced me to find different extracurriculars, which led me to Me Too Monologues and revealed my passion for writing. Suffering from an eating disorder led me to meet a psychologist who has now become one of my best friends and mentors for life and was instrumental in helping me down the road when I ran into an even greater struggle. Having to take an extra semester allowed me to share an apartment with the most inspiring and explorative friends I have ever had and accept myself in a way that allowed me to begin defying the parts of me that were always looking for approval.
It has taken me a while to get over the expectations that did not come to fruition during my time at Duke. What has helped me most has been recognizing just how much benefit I had received from the detours I had never intended to take. With time and perspective, I have come to recognize that Duke has given me far more than I asked for. Because without the uncertainty and the roadblocks and the recalculations, I never would have even known to ask for them in the first place.
Sometimes we initially reject the gifts we are given because they don’t look the way we expect them to look. Luckily, they tend to stick around long enough for us to recognize their value.
Cara Peterson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday. Follow her tumblr http://thetwenty-something.tumblr.com.
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