The common room in which I stood was tightly packed with crowds of wide-eyed freshmen, which made any attempt at mingling without awkwardly elbowing past someone nearly impossible. Great, I thought. Isn’t socializing comfortably with others supposed to be the point of all this? I’d realize soon afterward, on the bus back to East Campus, that my assumption was woefully naïve — rush, as it turns out, predicates itself far more on social performance than comfortable mingling.
I gazed at the other first-years accompanying me on the C1. They, too, had just spent upward of an hour trying to be the most interesting person in the room, carefully balancing lighthearted humor, feigned curiosity and a casual demeanor. (Too much energy is startling; too little is concerning.) I overheard one girl mention how well she had connected with an SLG member, which immediately caused me to tune out and lay my head against the window. None of my conversations had seemed that promising.
Was I just terrible at talking to others, at getting to know them? I’d chatted with plenty of SLG members at the open houses I attended, and our conversations were fine. Nothing I said seemed obscenely off-putting or dull. I’d mostly talked about my hometown (“Oh, Raleigh? You’re local! What’s that like?”), my co-curriculars (“The Chronicle, that’s cool! Recess? … I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it”) and the freshly inked tattoo on my inner forearm (“Let me guess — you like movies”).
Coming up with talking points wasn’t the hard part. It was desperately trying to boil myself down to those topics, a few facts I could quickly spit out that would most accurately explain me, that was causing most of my anxiety. These bite-sized pieces of myself had to be easily digestible, but attention-grabbing, too — not only was I trying to introduce myself, I was also trying to do it in a manner that was charismatic and alluring and entertaining. I wanted to present myself as someone who could fit in, a person who feels intensely familiar after just a few minutes of conversation.
Trying to impress others isn’t inherently terrible. Everyone wants to be liked. (If you’re vehemently shaking your head, you’re lying to yourself.) We’ve packaged and branded ourselves into perfect little bullet points a million times already — applying to colleges, writing personal statements for summer programs, vying for a spot in a selective club on campus — but very few of us have done it purely for social payoff. The idea of voluntarily putting yourself in a position to be judged almost purely on first encounters, in which most of the (brief) conversation is pedestrian and unrevealing, sounds awful. And yet, without fail, countless first-year students — myself included — play along and rush Greek organizations or SLGs every spring.
Why did I rush? I comb through my memories in an attempt to remember the exact thoughts and feelings I had during winter break of my freshman year. I was depressed. I was scared. I was anxious. The adage that I’d heard innumerable times since I arrived at Duke was eating away at me: Your first semester friendships won’t last. I convinced myself that rush would inevitably tear my relationships apart, but the severing could at least be delayed if I tagged along to events and parties. Maybe, by some stroke of luck, I’d even end up in the same SLG as one of my friends.
It’s hard to think rationally when everything seems to be on the precipice of catastrophe. Logically, if my friends truly cared about me, their possible affiliation with a living group would not hinder our ability to have an intimate, healthy relationship. But my friendships still felt so fragile and I’m easily susceptible to loneliness and I didn’t want to be left out. I was so terrified of being left out.
I ended up rushing only one SLG, and I was cut after the second round. I think it was because I showed up to a rush party considerably drunk, but in my mind, liquor made me looser and funnier and less likely to second-guess every conversation I had. Sometimes I wonder what the discussion was like when the time came to decide whether or not I’d make it to the final round. Was it long and drawn out, a heated debate that caused a schism in the group? Or was it an easy decision, a quick and unanimous ‘no’ that resounded in murmurs throughout the room? I’d like to think it was the former, but deep down, I’m sure it was some variation of the latter.
Most of my friends ended up joining an SLG. Things settled down after January, and none of my friendships were irreparably damaged — in fact, they only strengthened as the weeks pushed on, and I’m grateful to be able to call my first-semester friends my best friends, people with whom I’ll hopefully remain in contact for the rest of my life. Rush, as uncomfortable and weird and anxiety-inducing as it was, didn’t ruin my freshman year. I guess that’s what I wish someone would’ve told me: That it’s normal not to feel excited about rush, to feel alienated and alone and pressured and strange while everyone around you seems to be excelling. Putting on a performance for others probably isn’t supposed to feel natural.
I like to think that I’m okay. (And if I’m not, it’s definitely not rush that’s at fault.) I like to think that you’ll be okay, too — whether you’re rushing, or you’re feeling excluded, or you’re incredibly excited at the thought of being affiliated. It’s up to you whether or not rush defines your Duke experience. So be unafraid, like I wish I had been, and do what feels right to you. I promise everything will be fine.
Nina Wilder is a Trinity sophomore and the Recess managing editor.
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