If anyone were to ask what singular skill I am most proud of acquiring at Duke, I would respond that it is dealing with rejection. Not memo writing, pouring agar plates, or wiggling my way onto the C1 at 9:50 a.m. Rather, it is learning to be rejected from amazing opportunities that has been the greatest challenge, and thus achievement, so far in my early Duke career. Not much in my high school prepared me for the constant cycles of application and rejection that sneak their way into every aspect of my life. The 25 percent early decision acceptance rate at the time I applied felt low, but now seems high compared to the acceptance rates of every insanely competitive opportunity at Duke.
When I first arrived at Duke with confidence and bright eyes, I wanted to get involved and explore new interests. I tried out for things I had been too scared to do in high school, and I applied to research opportunities that represented why I had wanted to come to Duke. In those few weeks, I experienced my first taste of rejection, as I received a steady stream of “we regret to inform you” and “we are unable to offer you” in my inbox. I felt like all of these opportunities were perfect for me and would change my life permanently, but they never came. The act of opening my mail app itself began to stress me out, even when I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. My heart would start racing every time I refreshed my inbox, and I breathed a sigh of relief when no new emails popped up.
Even though I felt capable and qualified, most of the rejections I faced during my first year were my fault. My resume was that of an undecided first-year student, who had no marketable skills and no experience. I was unorganized, lazily informed and idealistic. I didn’t even know where to start building experience in fields I had interest in. At that time, I envied my friends in FOCUS programs. They had their classes figured out and had close relationships with professors who could give them advice on research and write recommendation letters on their behalf. The continuous string of rejections I received taught me that I had no idea what I wanted to do, which was why I wasn’t quite prepared to do anything.
I was a pre-med potential neuroscience or chemistry major in my first few months here, and I applied to pertinent positions. Once I didn’t gain traction in those areas, and came to the conclusion that I didn’t know what I cared about, I tried to do some soul searching. I found several areas that I did care about—social justice, environmental science, public health—and thought of subject areas where they intersected. After scrolling through websites and directories, I hastily dropped my neuro classes for the next semester and added public policy and environmental science classes. I applied to research opportunities the next fall, and although I had been unsuccessful for so long, I had a new sense of confidence.
As a result of my many initial rejections, I was forced to scrutinize what I was interested in and what I wanted to do in life. I realized that I only applied to certain things for prestige and because I felt obligated to. Without rejection, I would’ve never looked introspectively at my passions. With my newfound confidence, I looked intensely for positions that felt incredibly right and perfect for what I cared about. With this new attitude, I entered sophomore year applying to an enormous wave of positions and opportunities. I was rejected from several, but I eventually got into an environmental health lab that was perfect for my interests, after my dozens of prior attempts.
Nowadays, I continue to apply to things, and I continue to get rejected from things that I want desperately. But my heart no longer races when I get a mail notification. I shrug and go on with my day. I’ve also learned to never expect anything, and to never take any opportunity for granted. I’ve come to realize that this is a component of life that will never disappear, and only become more dominant and pervasive. Whether I go into research or apply to graduate schools, the cycle of applications will determine my future. However, I don’t have to allow it to determine my day-to-day happiness or to diminish my hope.
Rejection while at Duke continuously reminds me that I have so much room to grow. It teaches me that I am among highly qualified peers, and that I will always be challenged by other students at this school. Most importantly, it has taught me to build my self-worth and validation on my own, instead of relying on achievements and quantifiers of success. Sometimes I have to acknowledge that I am indeed unqualified in comparison to the people around me. But I can work on this by continuing to pursue the things I care about, even if I don’t get validation that it is meant for me.
This summer marks the first summer where I have substantial plans and am not scrambling last minute to piece together something meaningful. In previous summers, I was rejected from every program or position I applied to and even fired from two jobs before I could start (both not entirely my fault). Although now I do feel like less of a failure for getting accepted into something, I realize that my previous rejections didn’t really mean much in the long run. I still care about the same things that I always did, and being turned down for opportunities hasn’t diminished my passions. If anything, it has clarified them. So, I look forward to a future full of constant rejections that will continue to catalyze my growth and force me to create my self-worth on my own.
Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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