“I have no idea how I got in here.”
It’s a line you hear all the time on this campus. To an outsider, it might seem like an attempt at humility; after all, this isn’t a place where people rub their SAT scores in your face. But when I look deeper, I think many of us, from newly-minted first-years to washed up, jaded seniors, have internalized the notion that others are more worthy of being at Duke than we are.
Effortless perfection has haunted this campus long before any of us called ourselves Duke students. It’s the idea that everyone around us seems to be succeeding in every aspect of their lives without any “visible effort.” The term was even coined at Duke, after an early 2000s study found that Duke women graduate with less self-confidence than they had upon matriculation.
Stanford calls this same phenomenon the duck syndrome: we’re all metaphorical ducks, gliding smoothly on surface but paddling frantically under the water.
I arrived at Duke in August of 2015 with the full expectation that everyone on this campus would be smarter, richer, cooler and more attractive than I am. Since then, I have settled in, found my friend group, and made Duke my home. But that feeling of inferiority never fully disappeared.
The self-doubt doesn’t look the same as it once did. I overcame the brutal ego-check of Math 112 midterms a few semesters ago, and I am now content to occupy my a-little-below-average spot in the world of Duke math. Almost three years after getting rejected from all the SLGs I rushed, the solid friendships I have on this campus have reassured me of my social worth. But new fears pop up all the time. Last semester, it felt like all of my friends were getting internship offers at top-tier tech and consulting companies while I was desperately dispensing my résumé to no response. And now as a senior, while those same friends agonize over whether or not to accept their shiny return offers, I am left to wonder if any company would hire me at all.
I don’t know how much of this is Duke’s fault and how much of it is my own. Are we pulled into an existing culture at Duke that tells us we aren’t worthwhile if we don’t have every facet of our lives running smoothly? Or is my insecurity the fault of the high-achieving, perfectionist side of me that made me want to attend a school like Duke in the first place?
Here is what I do know: effortless perfection is a myth. It isn’t real. No one makes it through Duke without struggling, and no one can go four years in this insulated bubble of hyper-achievement without experiencing at least a tinge of self-doubt. I would never expect my friends to be without flaw or error because I know that no matter how bright, talented or accomplished they are, they are human. So why don’t I treat myself with the same understanding?
And here’s what else I know: it is not easy to get into Duke. I don’t sit in the decision room with the admissions officers, but with so many applicants and so few spots in each new class, I am certain that no one’s admittance to this school is accidental. We were all chosen by a team of people who know what it takes to be successful in the Duke environment, and those people picked each of us because they believe in our potential to make a positive contribution to this community. I might never be 100 percent confident that I deserve to be here. But someone else was 100 percent confident in me, and that must count for something.
Ethan Ahuna is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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