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Do I deserve to be at Duke?

staff note

Do I deserve to be at Duke? It’s a question I’m sure every student has asked themselves, and one that my ethics professor, in so many words, posed to the class last week as we discussed the merits of the “I worked for it, I earned it” mentality.

I thought about it: Do I deserve to be at Duke? Throughout the progression of my college experience, my answer to this question has changed. If you’d asked me the moment I received my acceptance I would’ve given a hearty “Yes, of course!” and why wouldn’t I have? Like many Duke students, I worked hard in high school and I graduated at the top of my class — I was smart, and smart students deserve to go to good schools like Duke.

That, of course, is not the mentality that stuck with me through most of my college experience. The fact that I worked hard in high school and that I graduated at the top of my class didn’t change, but the final part of the equation — that, because of that, I was smart — did. I’d never really thought about what it meant to be smart, and I’d never needed to. My grades and my test scores were good, so it didn’t matter to me if I was actually learning, or if my classes helped me grow as a person (things I would argue did not matter to the colleges I was applying to, either). So when all of a sudden I wasn’t getting great grades and my test scores were not above average, I no longer had the on-paper proof to back up the claim that I was smart.

So my answer abruptly changed to “no” — I didn’t deserve to be at Duke. Not only was I no longer smart, I wasn’t even trying to “be the bigger person” by putting extra work into the classes I was doing poorly in. In my mind, I wasn’t doing poorly because I wasn’t putting in the effort; I was doing poorly because I was not smart enough to do well. I would ask myself: If the admissions office had known I would be barely passing my chemistry classes and relatively uninvolved on campus, would they still have sent my application through? Was there some admissions counselor out there tracking my progress, determining whether or not they had made a mistake by letting me in?

This sentiment is obviously not uncommon to the Duke experience. We’re all challenged, and we’re supposed to be. But to the point of feeling like we don’t belong? Undermining our own work with feelings of incompetence and inadequacy? It doesn’t feel like that’s a normal phase in life all undergraduates need to go through.

So my answer remained “no” for a long time, and sometimes I think it still is. But now I believe what’s more important is to re-examine the question. What does it mean to deserve to be at Duke? If it’s the criteria of a few admissions counselors, it’s safe to say we’ve all passed that test. If it’s hard work, I would again say that most people at Duke fit that criterion. Or maybe it’s that we’re using what we learn to make the world a better place? If that’s the case, Duke should probably just do away with half of the Economics department. 

What I’ve landed on is a weird limbo. Do I deserve to be at Duke? Maybe, maybe not. But I also don’t not deserve to be here. Despite the stress and despite sometimes feeling like I don’t belong, I have gained a few things from my Duke experience, and at some point, that’s all I need to expect. I’ve taken classes with content that I would be hard-pressed to recite now, and I’ve taken classes that have changed the way I think about the world. I’ve met people for the worse, and I’ve (mostly) met people for the better. Whether or not I do deserve to be here, it doesn’t change the fact that I can take something from my experience — saying I don’t deserve it just precludes me from enjoying the benefits. 

Georgina Del Vecho is a Trinity junior and Recess features editor.

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