I made the realization as sweat beaded across the back of my neck and flimsy baby hairs stuck to my temples, an unfortunate byproduct of North Carolina’s beloved humidity and the swelling summer heat. It was orientation week, of course—no one could forget the way the sun beat down so angrily on us last August—and I was at a frat party with my roommate, who I had luckily known prior to my arrival at Duke. I made the realization again as I stood in the common room of an SLG, chatting with a stranger self-consciously about my hometown, my prospective major and my sparse extracurriculars, my end-goal to stand out and impress. And again as I hovered on the fringes of a house party, the tight-knit group of people both mesmerizing and alienating.
As Nick Carraway puts it in “The Great Gatsby,” "I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life." This largely informed my realization about Duke’s social culture that I revisit with increasing curiosity: Duke’s social scene is perplexing in its intricacies, a positive feedback loop of discontentment and partying commingled with a resilient culture of exclusion, but a body that cannot be defined without contradictions. While such a realization was undoubtedly spawned by my anxious tendencies and social jitters, I quickly learned that I was not alone in my deduction—there’s dissatisfaction present with Duke’s social culture amongst my peers, even if it isn’t always talked about.
Of the problems with Duke’s social culture, its propensity to favor exclusionary practices stands out clearly. There are the regular culprits of such practices—Greek organizations and SLGs don’t couch their selectivity in any particular way, the process of rush acting as the largest indicator that they actively include and exclude students. And it shouldn’t be news to anyone that selective living groups on campus are, well, selective, but that also doesn’t make their existence any less formative on Duke’s culture of exclusivity. Compound that with the presence of organizations that are selective based on merit, scholarship, experience or talent—virtues that can be mired by nepotism and privilege–and exclusion is further perpetrated in spaces that are supposed to be inclusionary.
“The predominant way of making friends and having a community is trying to earn it, whether through selective organizations like SLGs or certain selective student groups like DSG,” sophomore Adam Bullock said.
Bullock’s sentiments were mirrored by sophomore Chandler Richards. “You have to essentially try out to make friends… it feels like most organizations on campus have barriers to getting in, whether that’s an application or interview or audition,” she acknowledged.
Duke’s problem of procuring hyper-selective communities didn’t arise out of nowhere, though—at a university with an 11 percent acceptance rate, their existence makes sense, as well as the notion that students would yearn for the social status and community that selective living groups and organizations provide.
“I feel like at any school as selective as Duke, social life will be selective as well,” Richards said.
“People here seem to really desire the validation that you get from being a part of a members-only situation,” Bullock noted. “There’s some pride in that. I mean, we’re all Duke students—we all chose to apply to a highly selective university and we’re all proud to say that we go here. But I think a lot of the exclusive social culture here is a microcosm of that.”
But for all of their selectivity, Greek organizations and SLGs tend to host most of the open parties that undergraduates hear about or attend, an ostensible contradiction to their impression of exclusion. To freshman Sandra Luksic, the prominence of Greek life and SLGs within Duke’s social settings is not a side effect of their stranglehold over Duke’s social scene, but rather reflective of their proximity to certain resources.
“Greek life has a monopoly over parties because they have the money, the locations, the people… they have the infrastructure to throw parties,” Luksic said.
So, selective groups and organizations aside, where else can a student look to engage in Duke’s social culture? The answer is perhaps Duke’s (and Durham’s) biggest anomaly, Shooters II Saloon. Its nefarious reputation as a hub for sweaty, swaying bodies and alleged sexual assault defines nearly every conversation about it, and yet Shooters is bustling and alive with Duke students all three days of the week that it’s open.
“There’s solidarity that comes from Shooters being a place that a lot of people at Duke can feel like they have a place to go to and have fun with other Duke students,” Bullock explained. “It almost feels like it’s more of an inclusive place, which is weird to think about.”
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Weird, indeed, because while Shooters serves to diminish group factions and acts as a unifier for Duke students without discrimination (aside from the fact that one must pay a $5 entrance fee and risk potential sexual harassment), it also heavily influences Duke’s tendency to stretch partying and alcohol consumption outside of the weekend and into the weekdays.
“I used to joke, you better get your work done by Tuesday because the weekend starts on Wednesday,” Luksic mentioned.
There’s hypothetical truth to Luksic’s statement—it’s not unheard of for Duke students to head to Shooters on Wednesday, Devine’s on Thursday, a Greek or SLG party on Friday and back to Shooters on Saturday. Of course, most individuals take a break somewhere in between or opt to only party and consume alcohol on the weekends, but such a lore exists for a reason—Duke’s social culture can be all-consuming.
“I think Duke has this reputation—it’s cheesy to say it—that we work hard, party hard,” Bullock said. “It’s really unhealthy too, that I feel the need to frontload all of my homework and commitments so I can have fun while everyone else is having fun.”
None of this is to say that Duke’s social culture is inherently singular or doesn’t embody a universal party culture that pervades innumerable universities and colleges. Likewise, the idea that if a Duke student isn’t involved with selective groups, doesn’t drink alcohol or avoids Shooters like the plague then their social life will be ruined is hyperbole. And while some of my favorite social experiences in college have involved watching movies with friends and going to concerts in Durham, I would be lying if I said that I haven’t had fun at a frat party.
“I think social life in a greater sense can be realized in so many more aspects [than just parties],” Luksic said. “I really think it’s what you want to define as your social life.”
Truly, no matter how isolating, inaccessible or overbearing Duke’s social culture can seem, every student has a social niche waiting for them—it might be a little harder to find but, unquestionably, it’s there.