Welcome back to campus! Hope you’re feeling ready for that first beautiful view of the chapel, first super late night in Perkins, and first encounters with all of the bright-eyed, confused-looking first-years who are now on campus. With the start of a new school year comes the traditional deluge of advice, goal setting, and ‘we back’ Snapchat stories, so I figured I’d throw in my two cents. However, the first-years have had enough of people talking to them this week. They’ve already heard how amazing their Duke experience will be and to take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities coming their way, so instead, this one is for the sophomores. I feel totally qualified to give this advice, since I myself am a sophomore (meaning I’ve got about ten days of not being a first-year under my belt) and have now been to O-Week twice, so obviously I know everything.

There’s a liberating feeling that comes with being a sophomore during O-Week: not having to fill the few minutes before a presentation or a short bus ride with a stilted attempt to make friends and not worrying if I’ll remember the difference between Soc Psych and Soc Sci on FDOC. I can even spend food points without an overwhelming sense of guilt. While this freedom is something I’ve relished this past week, it’s also made way for a new sense of trepidation to take its place. Earlier this week, I attended a session with my FAClets with the stated purpose of “building community and respecting diversity on Duke’s campus.” Sitting amongst first-years who were either way too hungover or way too eager to participate in the session, I expected a pretty standard talk about inclusion and the many different types of students who attend Duke. 

The talk was par for the course until our last activity, an anonymous ‘snowball’ exercise. We all answered a series of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions about our identity (ex. I am a U.S. citizen, I am a first-generation college student, I was raised by a single parent, etc.). We then all received another, anonymous piece of paper from someone else in the group and were asked to step forward when the person we represented had answered ‘yes’ in order to represent the different experiences and identities of individuals in the group.

Nothing could have prepared me for when the facilitator read out “I am nervous about being at Duke” and every single person in the circle except for three stepped forward. One of the three ‘No’s was my answer, and I had assumed that all the sophomores would answer ‘No’ as well. After all, we’ve been Duke students for an entire year. When I wrote ‘No,’ I told myself I was channeling the same confidence as when I inked a ‘Yes’ for “I am confident in my body” and “I feel like I belong at Duke.” But looking at all the people who had stepped forward, I realized that my ‘No’ was more of an attempt to convince myself that I wasn’t nervous than an affirmation of my self-confidence.

Heading back to West Campus on an overcrowded bus, I found myself reflecting on the feeling that had been clouding over me ever since returning to campus. I had dismissed it as feeling unsettled by my semi-unpacked dorm room or by lingering uncertainty about my class schedule, but I finally had the courage to recognize my fear for what it was. My ‘No’ should have absolutely been a ‘Yes.’ Yes, even as a sophomore, I am nervous about being at Duke.

Now that I’m aware of just how much Duke has to offer and have witnessed so many incredibly impressive students in action, it’s hard not to feel like I am wasting precious time. As the luster of my first year at Duke wears off and the reality of the hard work that lies in front of me sets in, I’m unsure of my direction and feeling more than a little bit lost. I realize that this feeling is not so different from the way I felt one year ago when my parents dropped me off on the East Campus quad. It may look different, but it’s the same beast. Instead of keeping up with the frat party schedule and the names of those two girls you know you talked to on the C1 yesterday, we’re now keeping up with recruiting, where people went on vacation, stories of amazing DukeEngage programs and research opportunities, who had what internship this summer, declaring majors, getting more involved on campus, and on and on and on.

This summer gave me a chance to come up for air and remember there’s a real world outside of Duke’s campus. My graduation from Duke will not be the end, instead, it’s the beginning of my chance to take the tools I’ve gathered here and put them to use. I also realized that one-fourth of my Duke experience is complete, and this expiration date on my time at the greatest place on earth is what scares me the most. Every day this week, I’ve worried I’ll float passively through the rest of my Duke career as everyone else excels and overachieves, leaving me in May 2021 with an expensive piece of paper and not much else to show for my four years here. There’s not much I can do except remind myself of the lifelong relationships I’ve been lucky enough to form and that the transformation that my self-confidence, mental health, and maturity underwent last year are more than enough for me to be satisfied with. While I haven’t excelled academically or professionally yet, I remind myself if those were the only areas in which I’d succeeded last year, I’d feel very differently about returning to Duke for another year.

The word sophomore literally means “wise fool.” Sophomores, we’re kidding ourselves if we say we’re not intimidated by Duke the second time around. Hopefully this time, we’ll at least be smart enough to own it. It’s okay to be confused—whether it’s about where the CCX goes or where the rest of your college experience is headed, we’re all a little lost. Also, I still don’t know the difference between Soc Psych and Soc Sci. And yes, I had a class in one of those buildings last semester (I just have no clue which one). Happy FDOC!