Graduation season is as apt a time as ever to reflect upon the formative moments that define our undergraduate experiences. I spoke with several members of the graduating Class of 2018 to ask about the good, bad and ugly aspects of their past several years. In hearing about the journeys of these peers, and sitting patiently as they reflect, I was struck first and foremost by their astonishing degree of resiliency.
That said, the five seniors I spoke with—Natalie Shammas, Claire Ballentine, Jason Ng, Aliyah Salame and Alex Sanchez Bressler—are among the most resilient individuals I have had the pleasure of meeting in our shared time at Duke. Their profiles, compiled in a three-part column series, offer instrumental reflections on how current students may conceive our remaining time in college.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee native Claire Ballentine is off to work at The New York Times after graduation this Spring. This former editor of the Duke Chronicle hardly recalls her first-year self because of all the immense changes—both the controllable and uncontrollable—that have redefined her life outlook.
“My life in the past four years has really taken a 180,” she recalled. Her home community was ravaged by forest fires that burned down the homes of several of her friends, and she ran for Chronicle editor just a few weeks after her mother's passing. Still reeling in pain, she decided to dedicate her time and energy wholeheartedly to The Chronicle.
In her outgoing editor column, she , “after months of putting off my feelings, viewing crying as failure and telling myself that my tragedy was not unique, my emotions eventually caught up with me. But when they did, I was whole again.” She shared that the Chronicle has been and will remain the defining part of her Duke experience. “It has given me a purpose…. something I am really passionate about. The work that I have been able to do has been very meaningful.”
Extracurriculars and friends are what truly make or break the Duke experience, she reflected. Though she maintains qualms with Greek organizations, she loves the powerful group of women with whom her sorority has connected her.
Her advice to underclassmen? “Find the activities and extracurriculars that you are really passionate about and really devout yourself to those things.” Don’t fill spots in your resume, and by far, live in the present. “I stressed too much during my college career... I compared myself to other people way too much,” and though she does not regret the reason why she could not (her editor position), she wishes she had gone abroad.
“The biggest thing Duke has done for me—more than any class—has been The Chronicle and the opportunity to do journalism every day,” said Claire in our interview. As an alum, she will attend alumni events, donate if financially able, but also always remain critical because she knows “Duke has a lot of problems too.” When I asked Claire what advice she would give to her first year self, she answered: as crazy as it’s going to be, it’s all going to be okay. Don’t stress the little stuff. Focus on people. Relationships will always matter more.
This Texan Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies major says he could have used a slap across the face and a “be more caring” shouted into his face earlier during his time at Duke. Alex Sanchez-Bressler, a creative writer, is a co-founder of the Duke Men’s Project. He is grateful to have worked at the Duke Campus Farm for the opportunity it has given him to get away from campus, and his sincerity is refreshing. His freshman year, he regrettably signed up for multivariable calculus simply because “that’s what you do in high school,” and for a while he thought classes lasted from August through to May.
A piece of advice Alex shared pertained to cultivating healthy relationships. Duke has taught him that friendships of convenience are notably different from friendships that add inherent, nurturing value to one’s life. The same philosophy goes to his academic work: he recently submitted his sixty-three page thesis on a topic that genuinely excites him, rather than bucking under extraneous pressures.
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Once while he was playing chess in Vondy during finals, a since-graduated friend came up to Alex and asked him, “is that productive?”
“No. Chill,” Alex responded. In that vein, Alex knows that not everything has to be productive… especially when you are on a university campus.
Alex’s advice to younger students is tri-fold: be wary of emotional labor, plug into your local community and live presently. There have been times when he has not been as careful or as accountable to people in his life emotionally as he would prefer to. But through it all, he has persisted, discovered himself and now blissfully fully enjoys giving and caring, each and every day.
Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior.