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Do better, Duke

“What’s your least favorite thing about Duke?”

Even though I should have had an answer prepared to this question, it caught me off guard. I was giving a tour of campus to prospective students, and I turned around to see where this inquiry had emerged from. The boy who asked had a slight smile on his face, as if he were daring me to admit that the perfect institution I was presenting, with degree options and dining venues galore, was anything less than that. After a semester and a half, problems with Duke have become apparent to me, but I often dismiss them, brushing aside tuition hikes, the self-segregating nature of most campus organizations, the lack of a genuine connection between most aspects of campus and the city of Durham, housing issues… the list goes on.

As I was running through this mental list, the other tour guide I was with jumped in and hit the nail on the head. “I think as an activist, Duke isn’t the best place to be,” she said. She went on to explain how she felt that Duke students just didn’t care about addressing issues both on and off campus, and while it was easy to find a few like-minded individuals, it was difficult to feel like she was making a tangible difference or changing aspects of campus culture.

I honestly stopped listening after she explained this, because I was busy realizing how so much of my Duke experience has been colored by the apathy that pervades campus. This sentiment was confirmed to me a few days later by a place that I generally avoid, due to its tendency to become a self-aggrandizing hellscape: the Facebook comments section.

If you told me at the beginning of the semester that the most contentious debate on campus would center around a smoothie place, I really don’t think I would have believed you. But when "Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens" became a center for discourse on whether or not the movement to save Quenchers was indicative of Duke students’ privilege/general apathy/horribly skewed priorities, I too began to question what makes Duke students so complacent in the face of issues that have a genuine, lasting impact on the lives and futures of their neighbors and peers.

More college students voted in the 2016 presidential election than ever before, and 18 to 21-year-old students had the highest turnout rate among all college students. Today’s college students have reported higher rates of political behaviors such as leading campus demonstrations, volunteering in their communities, and making efforts to understand other cultures. High school students from Florida are taking on our country’s most senior lawmakers in their efforts to pass gun control reform measures, and students across the country have demonstrated against hate speech, sexual assault, and the policies of our current administration. If the currents of political energy are running this high among seemingly every other group of young adults, where is this energy at Duke?

Is it simply because activism is inconvenient, or is it because it makes us uncomfortable? Taking a stand causes us to look inward, realizing that we may be part of the problem rather than part of the noble solutions we so often envision ourselves creating. While it might seem easier to post in Fix My Campus or share a New York Times article on Facebook, at some point, our words become meaningless if they are not translated into action. Activism at Duke can feel like a shout into a mammoth void—but it doesn’t have to be this way if we collectively push this conversation forward.

The amount of resources and privilege we are afforded at this institution mean nothing if we sit complacently, watching dumb-struck as issues of racism, harassment, institutional abuses of power, and more impact our campus and students daily. Being a Duke student involves much more than passively observing Duke’s institutional power at work—we have a responsibility to question, challenge, and criticize. The name on our degrees means less and less the longer we sit on the sidelines and let others be the authors of our collective history.

Do better, Duke students. The world is watching you. 

Ann Gehan is a Trinity first-year. Her column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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