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An open letter to the Class of 2023

Prospective freshmen walk around the Engineering Quad while on a campus tour Thursday for Blue Devil Days.
Prospective freshmen walk around the Engineering Quad while on a campus tour Thursday for Blue Devil Days.

The other day, I finished giving a campus tour and stood around on Abele Quad to answer any last remaining questions that the visitors had. One mother came up to me and said, “So you’re graduating soon—”

“Whoa, slow down!” I had to stop her. But she looked back at me blankly and said, “Well, you’re a junior, right?”

As I fumbled for the words to explain that “no, I still have over a year left” and “I can’t be ‘graduating soon,’ I’m not even legally allowed to drink in the States yet,” I realized that I won’t even be on campus anymore when the people that I give tours to now enroll in the future.

I get defensive about confronting my seniority because I’m anxious about the future and the uncertainty that it presents. But there’s something intimately human about not knowing… and there’s so much that I have yet to know. 

To the Class of 2023: 

Some of you already received your acceptances to Duke in December, and some of you just heard good news a few days ago. Congratulations! 

I remember opening my acceptance email, my eyes darting back and forth as I read it and re-read it before finally concluding yes, this is real, I really did get accepted, and then running out of my room to ask my parents to read it for themselves, partially to celebrate but also partially so they could verify that I didn’t misread it. 

Take the time to celebrate, because this is no small achievement. You worked hard to get here. 

But at the same time, there’s a nuanced middle ground that acknowledges both the hard work you put in as well as the fact that there are various structures in place that work in your favor and give you access to privilege. These two are not mutually exclusive. 

Recently, Operation Varsity Blues exposed a problem that we’ve already known existed for a long time. While no one affiliated with Duke was indicted, our school is not free from this problem. There are fully legal ways to have a leg up in the admissions process—perhaps your parents went to Duke. Meritocracy is a myth, and identifying the structures that uphold a rigid hierarchy under the guise of meritocracy is an important step in gaining a better understanding of Duke as an institution. 

This is different than situations in which people may wrongly attribute your deserved success to factors such as your gender or racial identity. Examples are ”You’re so lucky that it’s easier for girls to get accepted into Pratt!” and “You only got that job because you’re black.” You might hear this at home, and it won’t magically stop when you step foot on this campus, but the ironic thing about imposter syndrome is that the real imposters rarely feel it.  

You’ll hear Duke referred to as an “elite institution,” and sometimes people will mistake it for one of the Ivy League schools. This affects the way that people treat you and the level of access you have in ways that are much more subtle than an alumni network—if you haven’t experienced this yet, you will soon. Also, think about what it means for a place of higher education to even be considered “elite” in the first place.

When you come to Duke in the fall, there’s going to be so much here that you will love. It was at Duke where I saw the gradual process of leaves changing color and falling for the first time, and it was also with Duke friends when I saw my first snow in Pisgah National Forest. There will be nights when you unintentionally stay in Marketplace for three hours because you keep running into someone else that you know, so you keep them company while they eat their dinner even after you’ve finished yours. Maybe you’ll get lucky and get assigned to live in Randolph, where you can hold your roommate’s hand while you guys are both in your own beds—not because the rooms are “small,” but because they’re cozy. 

You’re also going to learn about major events in our institutional memory—from the Silent Vigil of 1969 and the Allen Building takeover in 1969 to the more recent Allen Building takeover in 2016 and the People’s State of the University protest in 2018. You’ll bear witness to our housekeepers being exploited, and scandal after scandal. Take the time to make a visit to Rubenstein Library and spend an afternoon digging around our University Archives. Learning the history of our university provides context for what’s happening here today and better equips you to enact change.

Don’t be afraid to criticize Duke, and don’t underestimate how much weight student voices carry on this campus. Loving an institution means that you want to see it improve as well. 

I frequently joke with my friends that I’m afraid of freshmen. While that may not necessarily be true (or is it?), it is true that your status as a first-year is not an inhibiting factor in any way. Not only are the same number of doors open to you, but people are willing to help you open those very doors.

This campus is yours now too, and I can’t wait to share it with you. Welcome to Duke. 

Emily Liu is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.

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