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How Duke has changed me, for better and worse

senior column

A few weeks ago, I posted a humorous TikTok about how my experience at Duke influenced my mental health, where I listed some of the negative aspects of life here: intense classes, exclusionary social scene, unhealthy diet culture, etc. The video reached a decent amount of viewers, many who I realized were prospective students, who were horrified by how bad life seemed here. Students from other universities echoed my comments as well. The issues I joked about in my video were so commonplace to my life here, and shared by all of my peers, that I forgot they were extreme. As a senior, I have an opportunity to look back at my years, to see the campus culture from a different lens, and reflect on the change I have experienced while at this university.

For starters, Duke was the first place I was completely, openly gay. On the first day of orientation, a member of my FAC group asked me “hey, are you gay?” and when I said yes she giggled and told her friend “I told you so.” It was the first time I had come out to a stranger, and it was my point of no return. The fact that Duke was an environment where no one knew me made me bold and confident. I became addicted to that freedom, and to this day, I have not shut up about being gay.

In my first year, I stopped being confident in my physical appearance. Before college, I generally thought of myself as an attractive person, and really loved the way I looked. I am not sure what decreased my confidence—the inexplicable number of hot people on campus, the body standards of gay dating or my extended dry periods. But for most of college I didn’t really see myself as desirable. It took a few years and one really good relationship to make me appreciate how I look, and find self worth beyond the fickle validation of men.

My time at Duke has made me feel mediocre—and happy about it. In a column I wrote a few years ago, I talked about the constant rejection I faced from campus organizations and opportunities. After a few years of even more rejections, I still don’t see myself as exceptional, and I am at peace with that. I understand that any success in life is dependent on an unpredictable mix of effort, skill and luck. Seeing myself as a mere mortal, and not the exalted Duke student we are trained to view ourselves as, gives me a feeling of agency I didn’t always have. My life is in my own hands, not in my resume.

I was an anxious person before, and I am a very anxious person now. It’s a chicken and the egg scenario with elite universities and anxiety: do these places make us anxious, or are anxious people attracted to these places? My constant mental bookkeeping and tendency to overthink made me a successful student, but the pressure of Duke was too much to handle operating at 100%. I learned how to relax a little more at Duke, but am still working on the balance of managing my anxiety and being the hyperproductive person I am expected to be.

Finally, my time here has made me a much better friend. I realized quickly, in my first few months here, that friends are really the most important thing we have to work for in life. Family is important too, but they’re handed to you. Friendship takes effort, especially at a place like Duke. For the first two years of Duke, it was hard to make time for all of the people I called friends. Schedules got in the way, and I found people slipping in and out of my life. The pandemic eliminated much of my life at Duke as I knew it, but in doing that it created space for the friends that I love. 

In the past year, I lost all of the positives of Duke, and maintained many of the negatives. Never again did I have spontaneous social events, aesthetic library study spots, free rock climbing, or intramural volleyball. I still had the coursework, deadlines and pressure to plan for my future. But in the absence of so much, I filled the time with my friends. I reconnected with old friends, got closer to people I only knew in group settings, and learned how to show love to people I wanted in my life for good.

Duke has influenced my growth so much in the past year, and has changed the way I view the world. The environment was intense, exclusive, and obsessed with achievement—and these traits rubbed off on me. But Duke changed as well in the past year. I was forced to create a happy life without the institution I was immersed in. And I am so thankful to people in my life who made that possible, and to Duke for bringing them to me.

Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity senior and is done having opinions. He would like to thank Frances and Leah for giving him the confidence to carry out this column, his parents and grandparents for tolerating his absurdity, Charlotte for entertaining all of his ideas and every queer person who touched his life at Duke.

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