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The social toll of being financially underprivileged at Duke

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Turning down Heavenly Buffaloes in favor of Marketplace, looking underdressed and off-theme at a frat party, sparsely decorating your dorm room: these small sacrifices–seemingly minor–can take a social toll on financially-disadvantaged students when spending is so deeply ingrained in Duke culture. When you go to a school where 69 percent of students come from families in the top 20 percent, it makes sense—it’s just the culture.

I’m one of those students. The summer before my senior year I bussed and waitressed at a Mexican-American restaurant in my hometown. Working upwards of 50 hours a week and getting paid only in tips, I busted my ass to save some money for college. By August, I’d earned a cool $5,000 and I’d never been prouder.

I knew college would be expensive, of course, with all of the textbooks and food and toiletries. Even after taking this into account, I was sure that money would last me—that is until, by the end of my first semester, I noticed that my bank account balance had dwindled considerably more than expected.

And the culprit? Cover charges at clubs. All sorts of take-out. Outfits for semis. Alcohol. Juul pods. An embarrassing number of pods. Outfits for frat party after frat party after frat party—the list goes on. All of these deeply non-essential items that feel so very essential for engaging in Duke’s elaborate nightlife culture.

Oh, you want to make friends during O-Week? Great! Well, obviously, you’re going to need to go out. You’ve got to wear something cute. Then you’ll need to pregame, find a party, get so drunk you won’t remember what’s going on until you’re already out dancing with someone you would NOT be attracted to sober, grab your friends and make a beeline for Cosmic, and then Uber back to your dorm because a hoe definitely does get cold, sorry Cardi. 

‘Tis the Duke nightly ritual—and it ain’t cheap. Don’t be surprised if you wake up $60 lighter in the morning.

So many of my most formative freshman year memories are ones that required some significant spending. In September 2017, for example, I attended a Wayne darty and spent a solid $30 on my attire and alcohol. I then managed to get so drunk that my friend had to haul me back to my room and put me to bed at four in the afternoon. When I woke up at midnight, I rallied with a group of people from my dorm. But we didn’t go back out. Instead, we ordered wings and sat on the swinging benches outside of Randolph, watching as throngs of first-years stumbled home in a mass exodus from clubs. The people I hung out with that night are some of my best friends to this day.

Another example of the costs of social life at Duke: belonging to a social group. I pay $100 in dues to my selective living group every semester, and yet this is nothing compared to the amount that some fraternity and sorority members pay. Hundreds, if not thousands of dollars paid for the opportunity to go to a few social events every week and put Greek letters in your Instagram bio. An outsider might find this ridiculous, but it’s so integral to the Duke social scene that almost half of our undergraduates manage to fork over the cash. Or, rather, their parents do. 

This year, I’ve been much smarter with my spending—and my social life has suffered in some ways. I go out less; I can’t remember the last big party I attended, and no one has caught me at Devine’s, that’s for sure. I’m an extrovert and the type of person who loves the energy that comes with going out and partying. While my finances have benefited, I don’t know if it was worth it—and what, if anything, I can do to find a middle ground.

The financial aid that Duke provides its low-income students is generous and is the sole reason why I and many others can afford to attend this school. But often, people unaffected by financial constraints are ignorant of the extraneous costs that go into succeeding here, both academically and experientially. 

I have thought long and hard about what advice, if any, I can give in closing—but in all honesty, none of it seems genuine. I cannot ask my peers to give up on their nights out if they have the means to fund it, and I cannot ask you to take pity on your less-privileged friends. The only realistic solution that I can see is for those of you reading this to try to be cognizant of the privileges you are afforded by coming from families that fund your Duke experience. Yes, education is by and large the most important aspect of college—but it’s not the only thing that plays into your success and happiness

Ali Thursland is a Trinity sophomore. Her column usually runs on alternate Fridays.

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