At the end of last semester, I remember telling one of my advisors that I had been settling into Duke slowly but surely, that my classes were interesting but not unmanageable, that I had found a niche of friends, and that I think I was more or less ready for second semester.
Her response was to give me a warning. Essentially, she looked at me and said something along the lines of: "You're going to feel like you have everything under control. And then second semester is going to come along, and all your friends may fall apart. FOCUS is going to be over and your classes won't have as much of a sense of community, rush is going to happen and your friend groups are going to fall apart, and all the stress about summer programs is going to start settling in. I’m warning you now. "
Thus, this was the mindset with which I entered second semester—prepared to deconstruct and reconstruct most of my social circles. And yet something was still off. First semester, it was more socially acceptable to feel alone or at least claim to "still be in the process of meeting and making friends." Thus, the logical progression meant that second semester, things should be settling in and we should be used to the work hard play hard pressure to embrace 110 percent of Duke.
However, this wasn’t the case for me, and it definitely isn’t the case for everyone. Recently, I found the last column of one Duke senior, a letter to her younger sister who would be coming to Duke. Alongside strongly recommending Duke to her sister, she also wrote the following:
"I’ve struggled to find people I truly connect with. Building real connections with people is often the first thing sacrificed when everyone is 'busy.' 'Fracquaintainces' you meet for lunch every few weeks abound, but real friendships can be hard to find, and friend groups can be near impenetrable […] Even within my social groups I’ve felt ostracism [sic]— whether it was because I wasn’t cool enough, or was unashamed about my dumb decisions, or because they heard half a story without bothering to hear my side. For much of my time here, I’ve felt trapped in a social scene I didn’t feel I belonged in."
During O-week, I distinctly remember wondering why everyone else seems to have their own friend group, as people from pre-orientation programs, sports, and other organizations clumped together. Now, it looks similarly, but with the addition of academic interests, clubs, mutual classes, and of course, Greek life and selective living groups. Friend groups are almost always connected by some community that's impossible to break into. Very rarely do you meet a group of people “who just happened to meet and become friends.” Occasionally, the friend of a friend is brought in, but for the most part, these groups are set in stone. Thus, the implicit message of most of these groups is: "You're not one of us. You can’t join."
At Duke, I have found communities to join and people who I've enjoyed spending time with, but sometimes it feels like I’m getting sucked into a friend group because the Duke social scene is brutal, and having any friend group is better than having none. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if people want to socialize with me just so they have someone to talk to or frantically compare where I “rank” on people's lists of friends- she hung out with her one more time, that means they're closer friends right? And as always, I let the FOMO get to me.
Dartmouth sociologist Janice McCabe once analyzed the friendship networks of 67 students at a large state university and found that they clumped into three distinctive types—"tight-knitters, compartmentalizers, and samplers." Tight-knitters had one core group of friends who all knew each other. At the large state school McCabe studied, this was characteristic of minority students involved with cultural organizations or of students involved in Greek life. Compartmentalizers were students who had different "spheres" of friends, where people within each sphere knew each other but not within spheres. Samplers were people who mostly had individual friendships, where friends were largely unconnected with each other. The social environment at Duke is different than that of a large state school in many ways, but McCabe found that amongst other things, tight-knitters often felt a strong need to conform, the compartmentalizers could have difficulty balancing the different groups, and the samplers often felt socially isolated. Which goes to say, all types of friend networks are valid.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murty has said on multiple occasions that the most prevalent public health issue in America is not obesity or cancer, but rather isolation. In a commencement speech at the University of Arizona, he said that “isolation and weakening social connections are associated with increased risk of heart disease, declining brain function and shorter life spans. They can also lead to anxiety and fear.” The need for community and meaningful relationships clearly extends beyond individual student’s college experiences, but as a first-year student, I’m simply trying to figure out my place.
Amy Fan is a Trinity first-year. Her column, "fangirling" runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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Amy Fan is a Trinity senior. Her column, "fangirling," runs on alternate Thursdays.