Coffee chats, info sessions, networking events; you’ve surely heard of, participated in, or been ranted to about some career development task over the past few weeks. Career recruiting season is in full swing on campus—many of us are applying to full time jobs, and a quarter of us have just begun our final year at Duke. The real world is approaching, fast. This school is a place with a sense of endless opportunity: a springboard to a great career, a perfect life.
But that approach fails to hit the mark in one particular area: romance. Everything at Duke is about prepping for lifelong success; but dating doesn’t have to be. If you asked the average taken Duke student, they’d probably tell you forever is the goal. But should it be?
I understand the pressure to strive for forever; I spent a good portion of my Duke career with a long-term partner. We dated for all of sophomore year and stayed together during my junior fall abroad. We, like all couples, had our share of issues, but the good times were made great by a level of compatibility neither of us had experienced before.
However, the return to campus following that semester abroad made it clear that we had both grown personally, but in different and ultimately less compatible directions. That impossibly strong connection had faded. Some of you have undoubtedly had similar experiences. Our new selves, each better and stronger in its own right, just weren’t right for each other. For many of us, the personal growth native to higher education hasn’t settled enough for ‘forever’ compatibility to be possible.
Duke is stressful: the term ‘pressure cooker’ springs immediately to mind. The often overwhelming experiences which make our time at Duke so valuable for career development also motivate personal growth at breakneck pace. Look back a few years. Are your views, passions and friends unchanged? Mine certainly aren’t, and I’m better for it.
Amid all this change, who’s to say that the person you fall in love with during the immensely stressful (read: vulnerable), deeply formative period that is your time at Duke will be the same person you’d choose in a few years? That thought exercise is relatively futile anyway, because the person you fell for will have changed, too.
Those who study abroad may seem to have it particularly hard when it comes to dating. The line “abroad changed me” is typically a sarcastic, slightly comical remark, but there is truth in the humor. You do indeed return from abroad a mildly different person, and this is a hurdle for many relationships here. But these changes happen even if we are home. I was abroad in Sydney, Australia (go, seriously) and my girlfriend at the time was on campus in Durham, but we both changed during that semester; it’s not about abroad, the Duke experience itself changes us too.
So yes, dating in college can be hard. The question is how do we make the most of it here, at Duke?
Some of my friends have said they’d love to find a lifelong partner while at Duke since everyone is so smart and driven. While that’s logical, and something I’ve considered myself, the truth is we have years of growth left before we are ready for that kind of committed relationship. Finding “the one” at Duke should be left for picking your dream job, not a partner.
Dating in college is not akin to the ways we prepare for the future while studying here; its purpose is entirely different. When prepping for a career, everything is about outcomes. What (or who) you know can have a substantial impact on where you end up and what you earn, so there is a mad scramble to figure it all out now. In the romantic arena, we should be less focused on the endgame, and more focused on the memories we can make in the present.
We, as Duke students, love to be in control—it’s part of why the well defined tracks to consulting or finance careers are so popular. But dating is far less formulaic. While we should all control our academic and career arcs, there is solace in accepting that changes in romantic desires coming from gradual (and, in my experience, almost imperceivable) personal growth, are more difficult to micromanage. Of course in time, emotions will stabilize. Until then, the messy business of self-discovery is not something we should neglect or postpone. It’s best for us to do that difficult work here and now, in the relative safety of the “Duke bubble.”
Go on dates, find the people and qualities that make you happy in a relationship, and learn from the parts which don’t. The truth is, our time at Duke is finite, and the realities of a lifelong relationship will be more clear to us after settling into true adulthood. For now, don’t assume happiness and long-term commitment are the same thing, because with the freedoms of early-adulthood come more moments of emotional erraticism than any of us would like to admit. You changed your major how many times? Yep.
Embrace the people who make you happy right now. For me, incorporating this here-and-now mindset into my life has proven incredibly fulfilling and valuable, and it’s certainly healthier than perpetually struggling to feel happy in a relationship aimed at “forever.” Have I dated someone since that serious relationship from sophomore year? Yeah, sort of. And critically, in this more recent relationship, we chose to enjoy making memories together and worry less about a label or the endgame. While you’re still finding yourself, consider taking the same approach.
Too often at Duke, we plan for the future and forget to live in the present. You have years to find "the love of your life," so, while you’re still young and growing, focus on "the love of 2019," and enjoy it to the fullest. And then, when the erraticism of youth has faded, go find what makes you happy long-term.
Ethan Stansbury is a Pratt Senior.
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