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Candidate column: Michael Gulcicek

I’m  running for the Vice President of Campus Life because I am challenging us students to reconsider Duke’s current housing model. 

At Duke, and in life, we are all searching for belonging and community.

Talking about the current model is challenging for all of us. The feelings of brotherhood, sisterhood, personhood, in all communities across the campus, are valid and beautiful in the communities they form and the sense of belonging they foster. However, it can be difficult to consider that the communities in which we have found belonging may have unpleasant implications for students who have not found acceptance into these groups. The problem is that while many people love and thrive in the current model, many more people do not. 

We rush to join social organizations because we are searching for community and belonging. However, the ways in which we find this are through exclusive and selective means. At Duke, we institutionalize selectivity and exclusiveness instead of belonging and acceptance. 

Finding community at Duke is difficult because a collective sense of belonging does not exist. Our current housing model engenders the fragmentation of social culture. Our social affiliations, more than any other factor, determine where and how we spend our Friday and Saturday nights. Instead of chilling with the people with whom we live, we must seek social engagement outside of our residence halls.

Our housing model institutionalizes this selectivity and exclusiveness, starting on East Campus. Instead of concentrating on building relationships among the peers with whom we live, we exert our efforts on securing community externally, via Greek life or Selective Living Groups. We expend energy networking and scoring wristbands instead of finding community through genuine, sometimes difficult, sometimes uncomfortable conversations with the colorful assortment of characters among us. 

One may not think of the queer feminist and the wrestler, the frat star and the Pratt star as compatible companions. This housing model allows us to operate under this assumption. The white frat star will find his brothers, the queer feminist will surround herself with powerful women intellectuals,  and the EGR guru will be coding the night away in their room. What incentive do we have to make unlikely or challenging connections when we do not need to maintain these past the first semester?

Such is not always the case. In fact, many point to the success of the first-year experience on East Campus for the communities that pop up in the dorms across the years. For example, the first-years, now sophomores, in Giles last year, effaced the crude labels of the jock, the frat bro, the nerd, etc… Their late night, early-morning games of “Secret Hitler” would last before and after the Shooters crowd left and returned. The sweaty, hungry Shooters folk would even join in before caving to Heavenly Buffaloes. 

But the next year, continuing these games, maintaining this special and diverse community, to which all were invited and could belong, could not continue. The members of the game split off into their respective groups, strewn across the campus. Don’t get me wrong—this year the game continues and their friendship remains; but the unique and inclusive community they built, lacking a collective space to thrive, cannot. We must allow for more spaces like this to thrive, not only on East, but also on West Campus. 

When we concentrate our efforts on rushing (a euphemism for performing one’s best self with the objective to impress), we forego and obliterate the idea of talking about identity in a reasonable manner. How are we expected to engage in critical dialogues about race, socioeconomic status, religion, ability, and other key components of identity when we put on a face to vie for acceptance by virtue of seeking belonging? 

How  are we supposed to have intellectual conversations outside the classroom when we spend more time worrying about how we can find belonging among our peers than we do actually talking to the peers around us, who are all searching for the same thing? 

I want to challenge the status quo of anti-intellectualism, in particular, how it operates in relation to and as a result of the current housing model. Duke students are outrageously smart, talented, motivated, and engaged—just not with each other, to the  extent to which we self-segregate.  The extent to which we isolate ourselves among peers who look like us, think like us, and spend money like us is alarming and frankly unacceptable. Any number of us could jump to tell you they chose Duke for the insane variety of students it attracts. Duke  loves to talk this up. We can’t hear enough about how “diverse” and “multifaceted” our student body is, and how much we have to gain from the diversity among us.

If we can get past the implication of labor this statement bears upon our underrepresented student populations, then we might next question how the University would cultivate a critical engagement and consideration of identity among its students, given its diversity.  The administration decided to do away with roommate selections for this reason -- to eliminate the tendency for students who look like each other to room together. However, no such similar efforts have been made on a larger scale. The onus to engage with the diversity of the student body rests on the shoulders of students, as it should. However, how can we take up this responsibility, to engage critically with identity, when our housing system cultivates processes of exclusion and social circles of homogeneity? 

I don’t think there is a communal sense of belonging at Duke. The closest we come to uniting our disparate social culture is when we’re rooting for the men’s basketball team—and even then, we fall short.

Housing is something everybody cares about, and for good reason. It is something we all need to think about. And we all need to do it together, not just independents, but SLG and Greek students as well.

I’m advocating for a greater sense of belonging. A sense of belonging that is institutionalized. I think this can be achieved, and I think the best way to achieve it is through transforming our current housing model.

Angela Davis said it best in her Baldwin lecture when she criticized our tendency to idolize words such as “diversity” and “inclusion.” These words are pretty ideals, but in no way sufficient in and of themselves. They can only suffice in the context of a transformation, one that actively includes and prioritizes underrepresented populations. We must be the ones to make this change, and we must make this change together. After all, that is what belonging is all about.

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