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What would it take to make an A during a global pandemic?

overcaffeinated convictions

Most Duke students have been spoon-fed an easy narrative—good grades equals good job equals good life—for our entire existence. We attend 8:30 a.m. lectures on three hours of sleep and four cups of coffee, hoping our sleep deprivation will magically subside with an extra shot of espresso.  So Duke’s transition to Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory and opt-in letter grades was designated a win by countless in my social and academic circles. However, as time passed, opinions began to change; a mandatory Universal Pass petition circulated, garnering almost 300 signatures. 

I signed my name to the platform, believing that Universal Pass would provide the most equitable student outcomes. I still hold this viewpoint; before I conducted interviews with my peers, I considered writing a piece arguing the case for Universal Pass. I was further convinced when the DSG survey of 49% of the student body indicated that our peers experiencing unprecedented stressors were more likely to prefer an alternate grading policy. However, my singular perspective on the issue, as a financially-secure white student with a stable home environment, co-opts the experiences of those with marginalized identities. 

And this co-opting, this lack of listening, is mirrored and magnified within our community. 

Students are using the presence of severe mental health struggles in the student body as an excuse to post photos of their most recent vacation. Duke’s administration is refusing to grant healthcare to all workers while citing the values of respect, trust, inclusion, discovery and excellence. The past couple of days have been a master class in how to take action without actually listening. 

To swim against the tides of this trend, I interviewed four students about their opinions on our current academic policy. I cannot claim to capture every nuanced opinion of the Duke student body, but I hope to illuminate the obstacles that our peers are facing, day in and day out. 

Jade Grimes, a Pratt junior who advocates for the opt-in policy, described her first year as “normal.” But when she reached sophomore year, things began to change. “I feel like this goes for a lot of Duke students: they have a really bad year and it puts them in a bad mental place. I was there.” Jade’s GPA reflected her situation. This semester, she was on track to outperform her sophomore self.  As a low income student, if I do decide to go to graduate school, I need to raise my GPA in order to be considered for more schools and choose the school that is going to give me the most financial aid.”

Rezilience Williamson, a Trinity junior, also believes that opt-in grades should remain an option. “Strip choices for the sake of equity? That is actually just equality. If everyone got the same amount of aid at Duke, I wouldn’t be able to come here. I wouldn’t be able to survive.” They cite their identity as a Black queer student and also a Rubenstein scholar. “My GPA is bad because I used to be pre-med and a math major. Duke doesn’t support people coming from our backgrounds. I was pushed out.” 

Although Rezilience and Jade live different narratives, their overarching reasoning is parallel: Duke did not support students during in-person classes; why has the administration pretended that situational differences among classmates began with the pandemic? Some of our peers have been systemically pushed out; an extra semester may have served to boost them back into the playing field. 

Lauren Kaveri May, a Trinity first-year, however, believes that Universal Pass should be instated. She sees Duke as an environment specifically catered to academic success. When ‘Duke,’ as an entity, is no longer present, “students cannot produce the same quality of work.” Lauren relates this overarching sentiment to her personal experience. She shared that “things aren’t that bad [financially], but it is stressful, because my mom just had surgery. There are other things on my mind than school.” 

Steven Herrera Tenorio, a Trinity junior and Rubenstein scholar, takes another stance against the opt-in policy. “It all started piling up. I started seeing my mental health deteriorate when there was a lack of motive for wanting to do my assignments.” For Steven, mental health is not something discussed in his household. “We are low income; we don’t have a lot of money. There’s only so many times I can sit down and rationalize the reality of my current living situation.” 

For Lauren and Steven, life—especially now—gets in the way of learning. Academics should not be valued more than family, human connection or survival. But is this prioritization of intellect over well-being embodied in Duke’s opt-in policy?

Even after talking with these four students, all of my questions remained unanswered. What I did know, however, was that the nuance of these narratives remained actively ignored by those responsible for institutionalizing important change, even during pre-pandemic times. 

When talking about the hardships already presented in day-to-day life, Jade said, “As a low-income student, things are already kind of pitted against you. I had to file for unemployment before Duke decided to pay everybody.”  

Steven referenced mental health, saying, “Mental health is not marketed towards people like me. Historically, students of color from marginalized backgrounds really never get the opportunity to explore how these options work for them. When they do, most of the time, I hear really bad reviews from CAPS.” 

“I have a parent that is an addict; whenever she relapses, I have to go rescue my siblings. People have been navigating these circumstances and taking these classes graded,” Rezilience said. “Don’t use my trauma to hype yourself up,” Rezilience says. “We have been in your classes and you did not care until now.” 

Students are beginning to feel that the only way they are able to receive assistance is by presenting administration with detailed explanations of issues in their personal lives as a result of the pandemic. Should Duke task our peers with rehashing their trauma in order to receive the minimum amount of support? Should we even be having a debate about equitable grades in the first place, given the coronavirus pandemic? 

My answer to both questions is a hard “no.” The administration is not meeting the basic requirements for many, often marginalized, students to flourish. Duke is not listening. And so the underlying issues were with us all along—they were merely exacerbated by coronavirus.  

I hope that, in the future, Duke chooses to open up a method of feedback around their grading process, even after the pandemic subsides, that is accessible to every student and underscores the lived experience of those in unstable environments. I hope that Duke considers the results of the DSG survey rather than stating that “no students are disadvantaged” by the current grading system. I hope that the integration of criticism into policy is not merely theoretical. What would it take to obtain an A in a  class in the midst of a global pandemic? There are about 6,700 undergraduate students; there are 6,700 different answers. Instead, maybe we should pose another question: What would it take for Duke to listen? 

Lily Levin is a Trinity first-year. Her column, “overcaffeinated convictions,” runs on alternate Mondays.


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