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How do you build community at Duke?

Graduate students study and socialize in the School of Law’s Star Commons. A program created in 2008, Bridge to Practice, helps Duke Law graduates secure employment in their chosen career.
Graduate students study and socialize in the School of Law’s Star Commons. A program created in 2008, Bridge to Practice, helps Duke Law graduates secure employment in their chosen career.

After reading two fellow columnists’ articles concerning affiliation at Duke, I was disheartened. One columnist detailed his disappointment with his social experiences as an independent, and one columnist justified the exclusive nature of Greek life with the assertion of the exclusivity of life in general. While exclusivity and hierarchy are realities, there is no reason that Duke’s social climate need look like the rest of the world. In fact, I believe we as a student body, especially independents, have the power to make Duke’s campus an inclusive and welcoming place, even building it to be a microcosm of what we want our world to look like.

This utopic world could be filled with diverse communities that aim to uplift one another, learn from one another, and come together during hardship. Fortunately, there are individuals at Duke who are working to build non-exclusive, non-hierarchical communities.Their actions both go against the grain of Duke’s social life and  reflect the kind of student life that’s advertised at Duke. I spoke with Grant Besner (Trinity 19’), Ryan Bergamini (Pratt, ’19), Matt Wisner (Trinity ’20), and Mary Stuart Elder (Pratt ‘19).

I asked Matt and Grant about their opinions on Duke’s social climate. Both attested to the vibrancy and strong sense of community from the first year experience in contrast to the exclusivity and even tribalism, as Grant said, of the ensuing years. Matt stated that “random assignment to dorms (and now, roommates too) during freshman year created, in my experience, a social situation that was different from the rest of my time at Duke—one that allowed me to organically meet people and grow closer based on compatibility and shared interests rather than willingness to join some kind of social organization.” 

Ideally, this strong sense of community would continue to grow as students leave the gates of East Campus. On the contrary, it seems to dissipate as students funnel into selective housing and independents are plopped relatively randomly in West Campus dorms. Most residents in West Campus dorms barely know their own neighbors and dorms serve solely as a place to sleep rather than a vibrant community. As Grant noted, “Students indenting socially more with their first year dorm then by their West Campus housing...and if that isn’t indicative of the problem, then I don’t know what is.” 

I understand people’s preference for selective housing. Living surrounded by people in one’s fraternity, sorority, or SLG can serve as a social safe-haven. Accordingly, more than advocating for the end of selective housing, we as independents need to build the kinds of communities we would like to see. 

Given the isolation that many independent West Campus residents experience, the role of the RA is critical. Matt, Mary Stuart, and Ryan are all RAs. Matt reflected on his motivation to enhance the independent experience.“It became kind of an obsession of mine to almost prove that community could be built between a group of thirty people who had never met each other before—to show that Duke students don’t have to rely on some formalized membership to a social organization to find a healthy and fulfilling social situation,” he said. 

Building on this point, Mary Stuart reflected on RAs’ role in building community. “Specifically in independent groups, you have the meshing together of all sorts of communities: athletics, SLGs, service organizations, Greek life, and more. But you also have students without defined communities. RAs have the responsibility of bringing all of these communities together in some way”. 

Matt, Mary Stuart, Ryan, and many other RAs show us that the role is more than that of one of a supervisor, they also serve to encourage community in places lacking of any sort of social cohesion. 

Similar to Grant and Matt, Ryan saw flaws in Duke’s current social scene that incentivizes students to seek refuge in exclusive groups. When I first met Ryan, I was struck by his passion for building community. He can be spotted every Sunday evening sitting in the Skillet amidst animated conversation with a different amalgam of people each week. This is what he calls The DSG (Duke Student Group, a play on Duke Student Government) Sunday Night Dinner. Sunday Night Dinner is a consistent time each week where Duke students can meet each other over food. According to Ryan, “If you want to be part of any community, it takes buy in. And the only buy in that DSG needs is for you to show up.”

Ryan encourages all walks of life on Duke’s campus to join and even posts the open invitation in the “All Duke” Facebook group. Ryan is also heading the “CommunYT” efforts, which you may have seen on Instagram or around campus. The communYT was an initiative to encourage people to think about how they can bring the change they want to the campus. According to Ryan, the Young Trustee (the YT aspect of “CommunYT”) alone cannot create a greater community. Rather, it takes all of us to buy in the crate the greater Duke community that everyone says they want. 

I also asked Grant about his efforts to build community. Grant’s efforts centered on K-Ville and Duke Conversations. He started the “K-Ville Common Room” due to his realization that  K-Ville is the one place on campus where affiliation, year, gender, race and other identity factors seem to fade away. By providing a physical space in K-Ville to facilitate spontaneous interaction, he believed that he could do his part to build a stronger campus community. 

Grant also reflected on his efforts with Duke Conversations, of which he was president his junior year. Duke Conversations enables students and professors to eat dinner and provides a great model for students to meet and engage in meaningful and sometimes vulnerable discussions. This type of interaction fosters student interactions and engagement with people outside of their immediate social circles. “I’m a big proponent of the belief that community is a collective, inclusive institution rather than inherently exclusionary,” Grant said. “When we view everyone as being part of an 'in-group,' we open ourselves up to experience more of what Duke (and life) has to offer.”

While the efforts by these Duke students are notable, I know there are many other people on campus striving to build communities in unconventional ways. Nonetheless, building community can start small, with actions as simple as getting lunch with classmates, texting that old first-year groupchat, and being friendly to people you barely know. The root of the idea is to break down the exclusive, hierarchical social barriers, to learn from those different from ourselves, and to grow collectively as a community. The longer we exist within homogenous circles, the longer we thwart our own personal and communal growth. 

 Bella Miller is a Trinity junior. Her column usually runs on alternate Fridays.


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