My dad used to drive me from Charlotte to Durham in the winter. We would come to campus over Winter Break to see a cheap, easy win basketball game against some cupcake team because all the students were home and we could easily get a spot in the student section. I would jump up and down like the little spaz that I was and chant like I was a seasoned veteran of Section 17. Afterward, my dad would walk me around campus in the dark and I would talk about how much I loved Duke, our campus and the contenting absence of Carolina fans that haunted the halls of my elementary school. We would go to McDonald’s for some fries and would wonder why the bench closest to Cameron was Batman-themed, all before sitting in traffic on Erwin at the start of our long trip home. I would always fall asleep in the car, and he would always carry me inside and tuck me into bed. His worn-out little Duke fanatic.
My family began at Duke. My parents met here, they were married on the steps leading up to the gazebo in the gardens, they lived in Durham when my mom gave birth to my sister in Duke Hospital and they visited as much as they could when their son realized it was his favorite place in the world.
When my family dissolved, as they so often do, Duke did not. The peace that this place brought me as a kid didn’t leave me in the worst of times growing up, and it hasn’t left me in the worst of times as a student.
Unfortunately, this isn’t how Duke is for everyone. I’ve always known that my experience with this school has been pretty unique, but only recently have I started to digest some of the more popular opinions of how Duke treats its undergrads; namely, its propensity for breaking them.
College is a hard time, regardless of where you go to school. It’s not a break from life. College is just another backdrop for our development as people—our hardships and the lessons we learn. They don’t stop just because these years are so often touted as “the best years of your life.” These years are when we have to make many of our most important decisions. We have to decide what we’re going to do for the next few decades, we’re supposed to find out who we really are and what matters to us, and we have to face the cold world of adulthood by ourselves for the first time.
College is supposed to be hard. But college isn’t supposed to be that hard. Rather, it’s not supposed to be hard in that way—not hard enough to mentally break 20-year-old kids. And the more I hear about the unreasonably difficult experiences of some students, ironically referred to as “the real Duke difference,” the more jaded I become about Duke’s flaws—those that I was never aware of as a kid.
A close friend recently revealed to me that he often wished he had gone to UNC. The eight-year-old version of me inside almost had a stroke. How could that be possible? I started on a mission to change his mind, prepared to remind him why he was wrong and why he should and really did love Duke more than that hellhole. Then I stopped because, you know—that’s not how that works.
I remembered that his Duke was not my Duke. His Duke started when he came to campus as a freshman, and his emotional struggles that year weren’t cushioned by any underlying feeling that Duke was his home. The isolation that this school makes so attainable through its back-breaking workload and a social scene almost entirely grounded in Greek life swallowed him as it swallows many others. Things eventually improved for him, but improvement is nowhere near ubiquitous.
It’s easy for me to separate Duke as a place and Duke as an institution during tough times, because I have experienced it separately as both. I’m extremely lucky in this regard, and it pains me to see people who can’t separate them—people who have been turned cynical by this place I love so much— because it hurts to hear that Duke hasn’t equally provided the positive experience that we as students entrusted it to when we enrolled.
With this in mind, I asked my friend what it was that helped with his improvement. He replied, in no revolutionary or surprising fashion, “The people.”
It’s a phrase we’ve all heard. And it’s a phrase that I feel is the most certain truth I’ve ever known. The people I have had the good fortune to call my friends, and even my acquaintances here, are far and away the kindest, most brilliant and humble assortment of backgrounds and futures I have ever encountered. My friends from performance groups, from my living group, from Project Arts, the friends I made through these friends, the people who struck up conversations with me about books by ABP—they are why I laugh, cry, think, write and love. They are why my love for Duke is way more than my childhood idealization—because of them, my love for Duke grows and becomes more informed every day.
The isolation that happens here is an absolute tragedy because it’s so unnecessary. There’s no reason for so many people to be shut away from a social life or broken down by their responsibilities, and there’s no malevolent entity behind the scenes purposefully trying to make it this way.
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Unfortunately, this is the environment we just have to face. The silver lining, however, is that we have a reason and an opportunity to face it together.
Though it’s impossible to give my Duke experience to someone else, my encounters with the harsh and not-so-romantic realities of this University have made me realize that there is a way to make things easier for others; there is a way to let others see Duke the way I do. I can’t convince people of Duke’s greatness with words—I must strive to be Duke’s greatness. I must exude the same passion for others that I feel from this place on a daily basis, and give to them the gift of warmth and comfort that can be so hard to come by. I must try to be something to look forward to, something relaxing, something exciting, and funny, and real. I must take the love I feel here and embody it to the fullest extent.
It’s unrealistic to think that I can change the way many see Duke. But when I think back to my childhood and see where I am today, I know that it is well within my power to do for someone else what my friends—and, more importantly, my father—did for me.
Maybe without having to tuck them in.