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Beyond self-selecting communities

Last April, I had an insightful p-frosh ask me, "Doesn't that mean you're less exposed to everyone else? Doesn't that limit your worldview?" in response to hearing about the residential and social model here. 

And in an uncharacteristic defense of the Duke social scene, I said "I mean, you still get to engage with them academically in classes and elsewhere. You just choose to do different things on Saturday nights, and there's nothing wrong with that."

But the more I reflect back on that statement, the more I disagree. And not just because I think people are typically too busy to devote additional time and energy to seeking diversity. Or because my major in particular is not terribly diverse, though I love the subject. 

I think back often to my spring semester freshman year. I had a handful of people I could count on, but nothing that resembled "family" or "community” as the massive scramble seemed to suggest that I needed. But it was also this semester where I think I had the most authentic experiences with the widest range of people.

This meant more than chatting with people in my dorm common room, or getting meals with new and old people. This extended beyond the greetings I exchanged with people on campus, the short conversations that occasionally led to something surprising. What I really remember are the people I cried in front of, the people I asked for advice from, the people I admitted my insecurities to. 

I like to think that this was a diverse group of people intentionally, but this probably happened out of necessity, with whomever happened to be there, precisely because I didn’t have a “community” that I could fall back on. 

None of these interactions single handedly changed my worldview. But every time I heard someone say things I didn't know that I wanted to hear until they said it, things that I didn't want to hear but probably needed to, thingst I still find myself parroting to others, these experiences aggregated to create something I would never give up. 

It's important to note who these people are not. All but one are considered among my closest friends now, and they know it. I can barely imagine any two of them becoming friends, and I could never, ever imagine them voluntarily choosing to be in a community with each other. I doubt I'd go ask them for help or advice a second time. Not because I don't like them, but because without that proximity or environment... Why would I?

And yet over and over, each of them had stepped up to help me, and their advice, perspective, and companionship, in the small doses in which I received it, will likely stay with me forever.

Had we only talked to each other on the condition of being friends, on the condition that we “get” each other, we would have realized our differences and never talked.

Perhaps I was just lucky that semester to be in the right place at the right time, but I would definitely not call myself lucky. I was hurt many times as well, put in the very situations where I needed to go to someone else, often from pressure to feel like I "should" be a certain way around people I "should" be friends with. I was lonely at times. Duke, and life in general, can be harsh. It also seems highly unlikely that luck would strike so many times that semester (5 times at the very least).

Now, if I'm having a tough day, I can think of 2 or 3 people I'd likely text, people who I know will have my back and support me. I want to believe that that's an improvement, that I'm more settled and have found good people in my life.

But I also think there's something that I miss about running into my neighbor in the hallway as she's coming out of the bathroom, someone who is in the process of pledging a sorority, after we had grown apart, after we realized that we were different people, two days before a major midterm for her, asking if I can talk to her about something, and hoping that my faith in the Duke community holds. 

The problem with Duke's current conception of community, primarily described in terms of housing, is that its effects extend beyond simply a social group with which to have fun or a place to live, as I conveyed to my p-frosh. What people choose to call their "communities" defines the people whose opinions matter to them, who they feel comfortable asking for help, who they choose to be vulnerable around, who they will share intimate and real moments with. 

The effects of this extend beyond Duke. We already live in a society where we choose to live in neighborhoods with people like us, where we choose to marry people like us, where we choose to work at places where the people are like us, where we choose to send our kids to schools with people like us. And while some of these trends are reversing, college may be the last time to re-examine these decisions, before we live in a society that is becoming increasingly polarized, where inequality is more often than not growing. 

There seems to be a broad difference in opinion, perhaps best captured in a column from 2003, the last time the housing model was being revamped, called “Desegregating Duke”, where the author questions: “I guess I thought wrong when I believed the purpose of college was to confront my existing understanding of things with conflicting evidence and ideas... [Others] would have us believe that the point of your education at this university is to find a homogeneous group for comfort in the face of the distressing outside world.”

This is a plea to acknowledge that there is often a direct tradeoff between diversity and comfort, a plea that deeply authentic relationships exist at this campus, even if it may not seem that way on the surface. The experiences I described earlier helped me build empathy for people who may not be like me, in a way that structured dinners and rational thinking can perhaps approximate, but never quite reach. On days where I want to get mad at people and pit them as an enemy, I think back to these interactions. It gives me faith in this community, in Duke.

Duke, let’s restore that faith together. 

Amy Fan is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, "fangirling," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

Amy Fan | fangirling

Amy Fan is a Trinity senior. Her column, "fangirling," runs on alternate Thursdays.


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