Duke was never my dream school, but as the only American college I was accepted to, it quickly became the object of my obsession. Throughout my gap year, I was @dukeuniversity’s most ardent follower, religiously keeping up with campus happenings through their Instagram stories and posts. I poured my heart and soul into each monthly blog I wrote for the Duke Gap Year Program, for each served as a precious reminder to myself that I had a place in the Duke community. I participated in as many virtual events as the 12-hour long time difference would permit, longing for the day when I would be able to attend them in person.
This (unhealthy) obsession was the one thing that kept me going when the raging pandemic and the wave of anti-Asian violence it instigated threatened to disrupt my plans time and time again. For months, tension lingered heavily in the air at home as my mother and I clashed every other day over the safety of my educational pursuits in the US. Though fully aware of the validity of her concerns, I was so enamoured by the plethora of academic opportunities and freedom of choice that Duke promised that the prospect of having to give them up was simply unbearable—or at least that was what I had beguiled myself into believing.
The truth is I wasn’t sure if I was making the right decision. I certainly relished the idea of studying in the States but could never muster the audacity to consider it a serious possibility. It just seemed so absurd that my dream of studying abroad would ever materialize that I dared not indulge too deeply in it. Living under the shadow of uncertainty cast by the vagaries of the pandemic only gave me more reason to keep these thoughts at bay. At the back of my mind, I knew that uprooting myself from the comfort of the familiar and starting afresh on an entirely different continent would be a tall order. It was impossible not to with my mother pulling no punches in reiterating the enormity of the logistical nightmare and emotional stress this transition would entail. But after painstakingly investing an inordinate amount of time and money in standardized tests and college applications and earning a place at an institution like Duke against all odds, I was not about to renege on my decision. How could I?
It was thus with rose-tinted glasses that I set foot on campus in August, the excitement of finally seeing and experiencing everything in person overshadowing all my concerns. I was mesmerized by the elaborate Gothic-style architecture, but even more so by the fresh air, the clear blue skies and the picturesque sight of wispy foliage silhouetted against the golden afterglow of the setting sun. I adored the Hogwarts-style libraries, well-equipped as they were with vast collections of books of every genre and the perfect furniture for afternoon naps. I reveled in having intellectual engagement with my professors in class and fawned over the state-of-the-art equipment in the research lab where I volunteered. I was honoured to be learning alongside some of the most talented yet humble individuals I’d ever met. I loved the convenience that came with living in such close proximity to all my friends and savoured the freedom to engage in spontaneous late-night shenanigans with them.
But recently, my love affair with Duke has begun to outgrow its honeymoon phase. I still enjoy classes, work, research and socialization, but the exhaustion of trying to live up to the “work hard, play hard” ethos is finally catching up with me. Yet, fatigued as I am, I constantly feel the need to be doing more to be on par with all the brilliant minds around me. As much as cultural differences give rise to interesting conversations and friendship dynamics, I miss the comfort of the familiar—of not having to explain myself and be conscious of the way I speak or behave wherever I go. Bouts of homesickness come and go, especially as I feel my family ties and high school friendships straining as I struggle to make time for my loved ones back at home. Campus is still as beautiful as always, but it now heals rather than enthralls me.
Sometimes, I ask myself why I wanted so badly to come to the States to begin with, and if it was worth the exorbitant financial cost and psychological stress. College is challenging enough as it is, but the transition has been especially daunting without my usual support system. The knowledge of the manifold sacrifices I made to be here has only exacerbated the pressure, imposing on me a sense of obligation to spend every waking moment productively in order to make the most out of my college experience. My academic goals and motivations often evoke “oohs” and “aahs” from others, but the narrative seems to have taken on a life of its own, sounding increasingly impersonal and contrived the more I reiterate it—a relic of a former version of myself that maybe never even existed.
Be that as it may, I have certainly grown in many ways over the past few months, more so than I ever would have had I just remained in my comfort zone in Singapore. I have far from mastered the art of adulting—and probably never will. But the increased autonomy and concomitant responsibility have made me more conscious of the decisions I make, for the burden of accountability now rests squarely upon my shoulders. Without my mother’s mollycoddling, I have become more attuned to my physical and mental needs and learned to take care of myself—because who else will? I am still struggling and will likely continue to over the next four years. But if I could do it all over again, I would.
Valerie Tan is a Pratt first-year. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.