A lot of Duke students are not happy right now. Maybe it would seem like we were, if you scrolled through curated social media feeds and strolled past the BC plaza on a sunny day. But from the anecdotal—yet strong—evidence I have received from private stories, personal conversations and the first minute of several break-out rooms—many Duke students are unprecedentedly sad. I’m not sure what exactly is causing this toll on student’s mental health: it could be the global pandemic, the incompentent and cruel administration running our country, the normalization of a surveillance state on campus, the relentless weeks of non-stop schoolwork or the cancellation of every activity that brought us joy. What I do know, or feel, is that many of us are not necessarily in a good place.
Overall, every student I have interacted with is feeling stressed. It took me a while to realize that I am feeling more stressed than in a typical semester, since a culture of constant activity is to be expected on campus. I continue to have the pre-med course load, research projects and extracurricular responsibilities that I am accustomed to. The only difference now is that I no longer have an abundance of social outlets. After an exhausting day, there’s no WU or a common room to relax and chat with friends about my tiring day. A typical weekday evening would even include working out at Wilson, attending an engaging lecture with free refreshments or an intramural match of volleyball. This ease of frequent, already planned social interactions is a distant memory.
As I have recently learned in my psychology class, frequent positive interactions with other people are needed for an individual to feel fulfilled. A key component of this fulfilment and sense of belonging is that these interactions are stable and have an element of predictability. This semester, few things have a sense of stability. It’s almost impossible to imagine a form of socializing that is truly “stress-free.” Planning out a dinner with a friend now involves multiple google searches, monitoring the weather and doing some light background research on their daily social habits. While this situation has brought out creativity and ingenuity in how we socialize, it has taken the ease out of it, making it less of the relief we rely on as college students.
Losing our perfect college experience does not seem as tragic when compared to the massive impacts of COVID in the country, falling upon the most marginalized and vulnerable. Every time I catch myself daydreaming about LDOC or the O-week BBQ, I remember what others are losing. What follows is a sense of guilt at my desires for socializing, and for a “return to normal.” The end of the pandemic that we envisioned last Spring, with everyone stepping out of their houses into the sunshine, is a reality we cannot even picture anymore. Hundreds of thousands of lives are lost, jobs have been torn away and people continue to suffer—how can we possibly be happy?
The balance between mental health and social consciousness is not a new one, as the internet brings hoards of valuable yet stress-inducing information. It’s tempting to pretend like the bad things in the world are far away and entirely removed from my life (for many, confronting these issues is not a choice). During COVID, most aspects of my regular personal life require me to be constantly aware and mindful of the global pandemic, and the tragedy occurring across our globe. There is no break from being socially aware, as the presence of others has never felt more salient. Maybe, in some ways, this is a good thing.
With the removal of social interactions, I have the opportunity to spend plenty of time reflecting on why I enjoyed nightlife so much. For me, going out was often a rejuvenating feeling, as I got to spend time with friends I cared about, and feel connected with a broader community as I met strangers. My initial experiences with the queer community all took place in clubs or bars, sites of discretion and freedom (there’s a reason we don’t have any outdoor gay breweries). Going out is a special form of therapy for myself that I miss dearly—even if it seems superfluous in the grand scheme. However, nightlife does not always manifest itself as healthy, positive social interactions.
Going out for many, especially college students, can be a negative social pressure and an unsafe environment for people of marginalized genders. As we reflect more critically on socializing, we can question what elements of socializing we want to bring back, when it comes back. How can we create social environments that are conducive to positive interactions for as many people as possible? Virtual existence has gotten rid of exclusivity for many groups or programs I am a part of, as Zoom meetings are easily shared and have no need for a waitlist. We can embrace the attitude of “the more the merrier” in other aspects of our life, when socializing becomes safe again.
The discussion of revamped social life at Duke is just starting, as calls to Abolish IFC and Panhel gain traction, selective living groups lose housing, and Spring recruitment grinds to a halt. More than ever, we have begun to value the spontaneity of meeting new people, and stepping outside our closest circles—now that we are not able to. As countless Duke students have called for, a move to a residential college system could create a vibrant social life that is readily available to all students. Post-pandemic Duke is a fresh opportunity to start from scratch and let go of the social structures that rely on gender, class and exclusivity. I have never felt more ready to meet new people, and I hope this attitude is shared by other students.
The pandemic has hopefully made students more conscious of how our personal lives fit into larger society, and our local community. While we once enjoyed galavanting around campus and Durham late at night freely, we are now confined to our close circles and must take notice and action of our impact to others. Even beyond the social distancing era, we have room for improvement in the disruption and harm we can cause to our community. The nightlife we construct after this pandemic can be different, more inclusive and appreciative of the happiness that socializing brings. It’s not just a silver lining, but a necessity in creating communal happiness.
Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.
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