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You are your own university

I can think of more than one occasion where I half-jokingly played around with the idea of dropping out of college during first semester. Who doesn’t? When an endless cycle of midterms sends your brain spinning, even the seemingly-sweet embrace of sleep manages to haunt your unconscious mind with whispers of fatal premonitions and red, bold-faced “X”s scattered across your exams and papers. Waking in a cold sweat, you wonder if college is worth the trouble at all. 

“Why subject yourself to the same duress as high school?” I pondered while sitting in Trinity Cafe. Wasn’t college supposed to be this never-ending hiatus of fun, leisure, and tantalizing new information brimming at ever corner? Drumming my fingers on the table, I wondered if I could be my own university. I turned this idea in my head for awhile, blatantly disregarding the fact that I had an essay to write. And I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep causing such unfounded delusions, but had my parents not already paid spring semester tuition, I considered pursuing an education all by my lonesome. 

“Honestly, how hard could it be?” I reasoned. Setting aside the value society places upon a degree embossed with Duke’s stamp of approval that you put in a glass frame on your desk or hang regally on the wall for all to see—anticipating and secretly gratifying in the instant praise the mere mention of your Alma Mater elicits—what really does a piece of paper signify? Does it signify a satisfactory completion of a series of classes, assignments, essays, midterms, finals? Okay, even amid my state of inertia, I could still scrounge up some common sense. 

A degree opens doors. Often times, it’s a benchmark, a bare-minimum requirement, an unquestioned piece of information that you place at the tippity-top of your resume. A college education signifies privilege and promise to employers. So, yes, a degree is worth something. But my sluggish self, struggling to have a coherent thought during those ungodly hours, wasn’t necessarily concerned with comfort and financial security. In fact, I’ve always secretly wondered if I was fated to live that proverbial “starving artist” lifestyle. 

I first imagine myself sporting a newsboy cap and a dark gray trench coat, smoking a cigarette in some Parisian cafe with a notebook balancing precariously on my knees while I sketch a random subject several tables over…

“No, wait!” I stop mid-thought. I could do better. Suddenly recalling the idea that brought me down the rabbit hole of alternative realities rather than focusing the one that I’m actually in, I settled on my destiny:  “The Starving Academic.” Ah, yes. That suited me better. 

I would be on an endless pursuit of knowledge, chronicling my most interesting findings in my trusty Moleskine notebooks. I would scavenge through used-book stores, hungry for stories and narratives. I would scour through libraries, consuming information safeguarded in textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias. I would stumble into the great abyss of knowledge found on the internet, with websites, PDFs, sketchy links, documentaries, how-to videos galore! I really could be my own university. 

Now, I have tact, so like all of my wild fantasies, I sleep them off and forget about it. I don’t ever plan on dropping out, in fact, I’m bent on pursuing graduate school and possibly a Ph.D. program. I enjoy college, from the lecture halls to the small seminars, and from office hours to conversations with friends. But there is something to be said about knowledge acquisition and how it is perceived today. I think I was on to something.

College sometimes gives me the false conception that there is only one right way to acquire information and in the pursuit of that singular form of knowledge, I’m holding myself back from limitless possibilities. And there are always caveats at the expense of exploration, of taking classes that you never thought you would have ever taken, such as the integrity of your GPA, self-esteem relative to peers who the information comes easily to, and opportunities to do something you actually enjoy in lieu of something you thought you might try out “just because.”

However, there is no right way to learn and there is no single way to express or obtain information. Whether it’s in a stuffy lecture hall or in a conversation, whether it’s in a library or in an online video, there's knowledge to be found everywhere. Being your own university doesn’t mean you don’t go to Duke, it means that you devote yourself to learning and experiencing life in its rich pluripotency. So I encourage you to get educated, not just at Duke, but through whatever life throws at you. 

Catherine McMillan is a Trinity first-year. Her column usually runs on alternate Fridays. 

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