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Why Duke is lonely

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There’s this essay on graduating from college that I’ve read more times than I can count. The author Marina Keegan writes that the one thing she’ll miss the most about college is “the opposite of loneliness.” She writes: “It’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.” Everyone comes to college looking for this feeling, but I’ve found that the opposite of loneliness isn’t guaranteed at Duke. 

I started thinking about this after a conversation I had with two other Duke freshmen. As we were waiting for flights home at RDU, they told me about their disappointing first semesters. While they blamed difficult classes and bad food, they talked the most about social life: the artificiality of the first few weeks of meeting people, eating dinner alone most nights, feeling as though everyone else had their social life figured out. It made me think about why I had liked my first semester, and I realized it was mostly luck. I was lucky that my parents could afford a pre-orientation program and that I was placed in a small dorm with a good community. Even with these advantages, I didn’t feel truly comfortable at Duke until more than halfway through the first semester. 

The number of people that rush sororities and SLGs, essentially selective friend groups, shows that many students perceive a need for a social niche. Of course, a close friend group isn’t necessary for a good social life, and some enjoy having good friends from different places. But many want a group-chat that they feel comfortable texting when they want to get dinner, a good idea of what they’re doing that weekend, and the feeling of walking into a room full of people they know. Communities are convenient. It’s the people that you run into often because of a living situation, club, or mutual friends that you end up befriending. Many of my best memories at Duke have come from wandering into the dorm common room at the right moment. 

From talking to other Duke students, I’ve found that many haven’t found the communities that create a sense of social place at Duke, especially freshman year. College is less cliquey than high school. There isn’t that one table where you eat lunch every day or the sense that if you’re part of one friend group, you can’t be part of another. This social freedom can be a good thing. It makes it easier to meet new people and prioritize the friends that you truly want to spend time with. But it also means that many people are lost in the web that is Duke social life. There’s the feeling of being part of several groups but not belonging to any, of knowing many people but only feeling close to a few. While college results in close proximity to so many interesting people, this often just creates an urban loneliness: the feeling of being surrounded by many people who are on trajectories that won’t intersect with yours. I still remember looking around East Campus on the Friday night of O-week and feeling as though all the people laughing and on their way to parties had already found their place. 

Loneliness at Duke is compounded by this quiet expectation that it’ll be easy to make friends in college, that the close relationships that took years to develop in high school will form in the first few months. We’re used to thinking of academics and extracurriculars as areas of life that require effort and friendship as something that just happens naturally. But friendship is only natural for people who find it easy to make those leaps from situational acquaintances to actual friends, to ask the person from their class to get lunch afterwards or make sure that they continue to see friends even when their schedules don’t naturally align. 

While there are ways to increase the quality of your relationships, finding the opposite of loneliness is about both depth and breadth. It’s important to have friends to have long lunches with but it’s also valuable to have a community, a group for watching basketball games and doing Secret Santa with. But since a community is an interconnected group of people, it’s impossible for one person to create a community. Unlike many of the things Duke students do, you don’t get more belonging the more work you put into it. 

As psychologist Mary Pipher said, “We may not have control, but we have choices.” While one individual can’t create a community, we can each do things that encourage the opposite of loneliness at Duke. We can make sure that the person that doesn’t know everyone else at the club event or party feels included, seriously consider how housing and selective groups affect social life, and talk about loneliness in a way that makes people feel less alone. 

Sarah Xu is a Trinity first-year. Her column usually runs on alternate Thursdays. 

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