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What we’re really paying for

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As a second-semester senior, it is hard not to be reflective about my time at Duke. With graduation a few months away, I have been looking back at what I have done here and trying to discern what I still want to do. So picture me a few weeks ago, on the first night of black tenting, lying in my sleeping bag, shivering, in the fetal position, listening to my tent get hounded with rain, and repeatedly asking myself, Is this really how I make the most of my senior spring?

After seven semesters, my life at Duke has become fairly routine. Every week I have classes to attend, homework to complete, and a slew of meetings and rehearsals to go to. Every week I focus on meeting due dates, keeping up in my classes, and checking all the boxes on my to-do list.

But in the process, I started going through the motions. And without realizing, I lost track of many of the reasons I was excited to come here in the first place.

I came into Duke excited to take advantage of its vast offerings. I was looking forward to forming relationships with professors, exploring Durham, listening to guest speakers, and attending as many different sporting events and student performances as possible. But as I wrap up my undergraduate experience, I realized how far I am from these goals. With a few exceptions, I let opportunities to develop faculty relationships slip to the wayside. I didn’t go to as many guest speakers as I wanted, and the time I have spent off campus in Durham is embarrassingly limited. The events and performances I have attended are limited almost exclusively to those that my friends are in.

I was trying so hard to be a good student, that I lost sight of how to be a good Duke student. I missed out on many opportunities I was once thrilled about because I was so focused on just getting through my week.

Obviously, the vast majority of us come to Duke for the superior academics. But full tuition alone costs over $50,000. If all you are getting for your money is eight classes a year, then a student who pays full tuition is spending over $6,000 per class. Yes, Duke classes are (sometimes) interesting and (often) challenging, but there are many cheaper schools to attend where you can learn essentially the same content. So why do we pay so much money to take those classes here?

It’s because what sets Duke apart is its people. We are surrounded by renowned professors. Our peers are  incredible athletes, brilliant artists, and  thoughtful intellectuals from a diversity of backgrounds. People are this university’s greatest asset: the professors in front of the classroom, the intelligent and passionate young people that make up the student body, and the experts, artists and activists willing to come share their wisdom on our campus.

And in a year, or in a decade, I won’t look back on my time in college and remember the content that was on my Spanish midterm. I’ll remember being blown away by my friend’s a cappella concert and making posters for another friend’s fencing match. I’ll remember the freezing-cold slumber parties in K-Ville and the spontaneous spring afternoons spent in the Gardens. I’ll remember the dinner conversation that really pushed me and the campus speaker who made me reconsider my viewpoint. Our investment into Duke pays off when we use our time here to grow and challenge ourselves not just as academics and students, but as well-rounded people. 

There will always be more opportunities for me to take classes. If I want to learn new content or write more papers later down the line, I am sure I will be able to. But this is my last chance to sleep in a tent with friends just for the fun of it. This is my last chance to take advantage of the institutional resources and human capital that I can only access under the umbrella of this institution. And most importantly,this is my last chance to be in this insulated environment of young, interesting people who challenge and fulfill me every day. 

So in my last semester, I am challenging myself to step out of routine and look beyond my to do list. I am challenging myself to take advantage of the treasure trove of talent and intellect around me before it spreads across the country and the world. I am challenging myself to make more time for coffee dates, guest speakers, and excursions into Durham. And I am challenging myself to pursue the opportunities that make Duke unique. Getting my degree is about passing my classes. But before that degree comes, I hope I can fully appreciate that being a Duke student is about much, much more.

Ethan Ahuna is a Trinity senior. His column usually runs alternate Tuesdays.

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