I first heard a similar statistic presented near the beginning of my first year during a speech reminding us try to make at least one substantial connection with a professor or faculty member every semester. The speaker emphasized that it was up to student to build those relationships. If the burden is on students, then there always seems to be the implication that students who fail to develop substantial relationships with adults either have a lack of interest, a lack of social skills, or just have bad luck.
Yet I also wonder: how many people don’t develop these relationships because there aren’t many models of what these relationships should look like? I grew up with parents who explicitly told me not to ask questions in class because it distracted the teacher from the lesson plan. My dad once asked me to translate a word from Chinese.
“It describes a person who doesn’t really talk about themselves much—someone who’s quiet and considerate.”
“No, it’s a type of person.”
Is this a positive trait or a negative trait?
After I struggled some more, my dad decided to look the word up on Google Translate.
Months later, I questioned: did the perception ingrained within me—that introversion is a positive trait—make an impact on what I saw as acceptable and favorable behavior? I went to a large public school where I quickly learned that I wasn't the kid in the classroom who needed the most help. I was most likely an “easy-to-teach-kid,” someone who would probably learn everything even if the teacher wasn't teaching properly.
The best option to make things easy for people around me was to shut up and do my work. Counselors had hundreds of students and I felt like the best way I could help them was to refrain from creating any extra issues. My school regularly sent a small fraction of students each year to elite colleges, but the one time I asked my counselor for application help, she spent an hour convincing me that I shouldn't have applied to so many top tier schools.
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Now that I’m here, I’m expected to develop relationships with adults, expected to speak up in class, expected to make diverse friendships, and expected to be just entitled enough to ask for things. Did my pre-Duke life prepare me for this?
Recently, I was telling someone about a professor I had emailed who hadn’t responded after almost a week.
“Follow up and go to their office,” the friend advised me.
But he seems really busy and I don’t want to bother him, I said back.
“Amy, your professors are getting paid to talk to you. People like it when you’re interested in them.”
I had emailed the professor originally just because I was curious about something, not because of anything urgent. Had this been my counselor in high school, I probably wouldn’t have followed up or even sent the original email in the first place. Expecting that someone would want to respond, or want to be bugged, requires me to embody at least a certain degree of entitlement.
I used to think that there was a “type” of person who was innately better at this stuff, and that I wasn’t cut out for tit. Now I wonder how much upbringing has to do with it. Before I came to Duke, I observed firsthand some of the basics of networking: to ask for business cards, to always follow up with people, to smile and always work on building relationships. I learned that it's okay to ask a friend to look over an email and that people like it when you remember small details about their lives. I remembered that it is important to smile, to ask for help, to be interested and interesting, and to give off the impression that you know what you're doing. Logistically, all of this made sense.
But even knowing this, I still hesitate to leverage every network that is afforded to me and complain to my roommate about creating a LinkedIn profile that fleshes out everything I’m doing. I'm still working on making eye contact and navigating a conversation smoothly. I’m still beginning to understand what conversation topics are appropriate and how long a pause should be to feel natural. For some people, this comes implicitly. Not for me.
There’s a similar issue on a smaller scale that’s also relevant: making friends. I’ve found myself having the same conversation with underclassmen on the difficulty of finding and sustaining friendships.
First, I always ask: have you met anyone here who you've enjoyed being around?
The response is usually: “Yeah, but I don't see them around much.”
Have you asked to get lunch or dinner with them?
“I don’t know. They seem really busy, and I'm worried they're going to say no.”
If someone—anyone—sent you a message and asked to get food sometime, would you say no?
“Probably not. But it's still weird, and I’m still worried.”
Both of these statistics suggest that we all could use stronger relationships in our lives. Yet we seem to blame the loneliness statistic less on the individual and more on the reality that college can be a socially challenging place. There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to address the social norms and realities that make it difficult to build relationships. But in the meantime, I will keep sending the awkward FLUNCH requests, keep asking people to get lunch, and keep pretending like this is natural.
Amy Fan is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, "fangirling," runs on alternate Wednesdays.