Best Colleges has Duke ranked as their 10th happiest university, and with a simple stroll around campus, it’s easy to see why. Dukies live on a campus we refer to as a “gothic wonderland.” We’re surrounded by world-class professors and facilities. Our basketball team has won five national championships and our football team is on the rise. As I explained to my family when I decided on attending Duke, “you get everything out of Duke—academics and athletics.” But if Duke is this shining campus on a hill, why does the same college-happiness index list student satisfaction at 76 percent when peer institutions have satisfaction rates in the high 80s? It’s because Duke students love to share in the struggle.
I never understood what people meant when they said “misery loves company” until I got to Duke. It took all of one week of classes as a first-year to realize that students love to complain about how hard they have it here. In all fairness, it’s not easy being a Duke student and sometimes a good vent is all we need to keep going. But when you hear as many people venting as you see in the line at Sazón, this healthy way of releasing stress turns into a culture of misery.
Think about the people you consider to be “successful Duke students.” Many of them are a member of two or three clubs, they take hard classes in a pre-professional major, some might work an extra job as they suffer through rounds of consulting recruitment to secure a full-time job once they leave campus for the summer. Many of these students sequester themselves among one another. In all honesty, I am one of these students. I felt like I was going to get lost in the shuffle unless I overextended myself to prove to my mom, myself and Christoph Guttentag that my spot at this university was well-deserved. So, I joined more clubs than I could handle, decided to major in public policy, and set my sights on McKinsey—or Accenture if I just had to have a backup. I also surrounded myself with students who were just as busy and goal-oriented as I was in the hopes that they would keep me on track.
And for a year, they did. My circle of success insulated me from considering whether or not I was happy. I continuously fed myself the idea that working hard would yield all-encompassing satisfaction. But as of late, I’ve realized I’m sick of that idea. I’m sick of saying things like “Oh my God, I have so much work tonight. I’m going to be Perkins all night,” then spending hours doing work I don’t really have to keep up this hard-worker façade. I’m sick of pretending to be miserable because, so often on Duke’s campus, miserable and successful are interdependent.
My friend Alexi says it perfectly: “It’s like people expect me to be working hard 24/7 just because they are. If I’m done with my work, I’m going to enjoy myself.” Alexi’s work now, play later attitude is rooted in a spirit that I think a lot of us lost somewhere in our Duke career: that we do not have to drive ourselves into the ground to be successful and valid.
This phenomenon not only shows up in the way Duke students cushion their resume with an impressive cocktail of academic interests, but also in the way we decided to cope with stressful situations. For example, deciding to go home to New York in the midst of a coastline-destroying hurricane should not be the punchline of an expired classism-rooted joke. If your family can afford it, it is a valid response to stay safe in what we thought would a Category 4 hurricane (although the Titanic-inspired meme had me laughing for days).
Duke is hard enough on its own without the student-fueled pressure to succeed. Most of us place that burden on ourselves before we arrive on campus in our freshman year. As we settle into our place on campus, we chase the same intense success that got us into Duke—even at the expense of peace and happiness. We justify feeling constantly spread thin and worn out with the comfort of knowing our peers are being forced into the same feeling. God forbid someone doesn’t feel the crushing weight of the world that comes with being a Duke student! Because if they don’t, well, that person must not be successful, right?
Ryan Williams is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.