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When Duke is a foreign culture

In November, Honor Council wrote about how to behave honorably in a global world. When I read it, I reflected on my own moral code and recognized the ways in which it was similar to that of others. Yet I also realized that my unique background and personal experiences have shaped my perspectives on life.

I come from Accra, Ghana. Growing up, I yearned for a life depicted in movies from the West, stories from my town’s intellectuals, and glossy magazines featuring beautiful mansions and modern cars. I pictured myself visiting foreign countries, making new friends, and experiencing foreign cultures. This, however, was a pleasant dream-like fantasy that my family’s financial status wouldn’t allow.  

At an early age,  hard work and personal values mattered the most. I cherished resilience, honor, focus, respect and excellence. I worked hard and graduated high school at the top of my class. However, I hadn’t figured out what I wanted out of life beyond academics. I searched for suitable career options on the internet and phoned a few friends in the neighborhood to ask about college majors. Through conversing with family members and friends, I realized that I had missed out on too many opportunities and left out some of the most important people from my life. In prioritizing grades, I pushed my passions aside and neglected personal relationships with my teachers and peers.  Upon realizing this shortcoming and with a desire to improve my interpersonal skills, I decided to take a gap year. 

The gap year afforded me the opportunity to reflect on what was most important to me: personal growth, success, education. I chronicled all the struggles I had faced from stressing over school performance to dealing with family pressure and depression.  Moreover, I took the time to prepare and apply to college. During these challenging and stressful times, I stuck to my personal value of acting honorably in all my endeavors and instead focused on pinning down the triumphs and successes. 

On December 15th, I trembled, glued to my computer to check my fate. “Dear Franklin, Congratulations, you have been admitted to Duke University…..”

Though I was excited my actions paid off with an acceptance to Duke, my dad passed away two months later. Weeks of weeping.  Days of loneliness. Moments of sadness. Grief. My dad was everything to me. His priceless advice and mentorship. His love, care and concern. His teachings and constant encouragement took me through all the tough times at school. I think of him every single day. May his soul rest in peace.

Coming to Duke helped ease the pain. I found a whole new family. Everyone was welcoming and readily available to help. It was a new beginning, a time to soldier on from the loss and struggle. I took up leadership roles and actively got involved in clubs and activities. Owing to the lessons I learned during the gap year, I tried out new classes, passions and activities. I joined the Duke Honor Council, whose embodiment of honor and integrity resonated with me. Honor Council challenged my thinking and shaped my views on sensitive topics such as race relations, gender, and religion. Several discussions centered on the Duke Community Standard taught me how to better cope with different perspectives; these lessons enhanced my understanding of my values, abilities, and interests. I found a community in Honor Council. 

Despite the welcoming environment, the authentic relationships, adventure, and support, I  still struggled. Everything was familiar, yet so strange and sophisticated: language, diversity, curriculum. My accent impeded communication. Students struggled to decipher my messages. I struggled to encode meaning in speeches. I smiled through others’ jokes without really understanding a thing, careful not to offer disjointed reactions. I had wowed folks back home through my perceived prowess in the Queen’s language; yet I now questioned my speaking abilities. Fellow international students weaved through conversations spanning controversial and sensitive topics. 

Along with accent and communication issues, I encountered a cultural shock through classroom structure and curriculum. While my previous educational models considered teachers as the sole holders of knowledge, Duke’s model views teachers and students as co-investigators of materials covered in the classrooms. I struggled to adjust to this mindset. Many times, I walked into the restrooms, looked in the mirror and blamed myself for not being ‘a good student.’ Everyone else seemed to exhibit excellence and perfection with little effort:  a persona template most Duke students try to align and fit into. Personally, I was forced to take up a fake identity to fit the template. Yet, somehow, it didn’t feel right:  I felt I was insincere,  acting dishonorably in my endeavors.

It took a while before I mustered enough courage to confide in my lecturers and classmates. Great pieces of advice came my way. Engineering 101 professor Dr. Ann Saterbak offered the advice with most impact: “try out new learning techniques, immerse yourself in new experiences. You will be fine, you’re smart.” These words helped me navigate my first semester and life in a foreign land. The advice taught me that part of living honorably is giving myself grace for inevitable failures and bumps along the way. Inspired by conversations with friends who opened up about their academic struggles, I started embracing my own deficiencies.  I’ve learned that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to struggle and even to fail. By engaging in open dialogue and sharing our experiences in their rawest, truest form, we allow ourselves to be honest, open and complete. 

As we all begin this spring semester, three valuable pieces of advice I would like to share on behalf of Honor Council:  first, be as open-minded as possible to every opportunity; try out new stuff.  Second, embrace new challenges, and don’t let obstacles hinder your path towards success. Third, be honest with who you are and be proud of your strengths but also your weaknesses. 

This week’s column was written by Pratt first-year Franklin Boampong.


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