The “last” of anything has a certain romantic quality to it. Coming into my last year at Duke, I was determined to make it the symbolic, “out-with-a-bang” ending that senior year of college seems to deserve. I had been briefed by friends who already graduated: “Live it up! Say yes to everything! Take cool classes! Go see guest speakers! Explore Durham! Focus on good vibes!” It was advice I was intent on taking.
But there’s this weird, almost imperceptible funk about senior year that no one told me about. Maybe it isn’t universal, but it’s something that weighs on me and something my friends feel to varying degrees. The looming end of college—the bursting of our Duke bubble—poses a lot of questions that have no immediate answers.
There is something terrifying about stepping out from under the umbrella of an institution like Duke. Like most of us, I have been in school since I was five years old. School has always taken up the majority of my time, provided me the majority of my friends, and served as a gauge for my personal success. For as long as I can remember, the next step to “success” was another round of school: middle school, then high school, then college. After graduation, all bets are off and the ways in which any one of us could find “success” are endless. This should be reassuring, but somehow this newfound sense of choice becomes more paralyzing than freeing.
As life beyond Duke creeps nearer, I can’t help but look back at my time at Duke and over-analyze all of the choices I made. As I ask myself if I did college “right” and watch my friends do this same, it seems wrong that, although we have all made it through a rigorous curriculum at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, we are grappling with our sense of worth. Friends of mine who have offers already lined up worry if they are making the right choice, as if their entire future will be determined by the first job they take out of college. Friends who have yet to set their plans are cranking out cover letters and personal statements, perusing job sites, and attending information sessions with a slight desperation. They wonder if they are qualified for any job, if there is anything about them that stands out, and if anyone will hire them. The Duke culture—which we ourselves have created—does a great job overshadowing success with the reinforced notion that as great as you might be, there are many others who are just as good, if not better.
And then there is the question of relationships. There is an unspoken tension that comes with the acknowledgement that friends who live across campus will soon be living across the country. The beauty of a residential college experience like Duke’s is that everyone and everything is within a short bus ride and a 10-minute walk. The downside is that friendships can succeed largely based on convenience. Without such convenience, it can be difficult to maintain fruitful relationships. I constantly question if I should be taking advantage of the breadth of interesting and inspiring people around me or if I should focus my time on the deep relationships I know I will carry past graduation.
We are starting to decide if we made the most of Duke, and chances are that in our cost-benefit analysis of whether Duke was “worth it,” we are too focused on the big outcomes: the elusive job, the life-changing abroad experience, the lifelong cohort of friends. What we forget are the little things: the classes that have changed the way we think, the conversations that have shown us perspective and taught us empathy, the incredible growth that we are bound to experience after spending so much time in such an enriching environment. By pushing and elbowing our way through rigorous and challenging coursework, we have taught ourselves the resiliency that will let us bounce back from future failures. By juggling classes, extracurriculars and relationships, we have taught ourselves how to adapt, prioritize and act with intention. In our uncertainty over the future, we have forgotten to give ourselves credit for all we’ve achieved.
The questions of life after Duke won’t go away for a while, and when they do, new questions we arise. But maybe we can find a way to keep such questions from overwhelming the final stretch of our college experience. Maybe for once, we Duke students can survive without all the answers.