I am a low income minority student, a label that I am neither proud of or ashamed of. At least, that's what I want to believe, but understandably it’s more complicated than that.
Before coming to Duke, I didn’t fully comprehend the meaning of the label since I went to a majority minority high school where being like me was the norm. Since everyone shared the same income bracket, there was no shame in getting free lunch. There was no feeling of alienation due to class or income. So to tell the truth, I was unprepared for how that label would affect me at Duke.
Then move-in day came, and I was hit with my first realization: that I am now surrounded by White People. Throughout my life in the US, I was surrounded by people of color with the occasional one or two white people. But the moment I stepped on Duke’s campus, I entered a new reality: one where I was truly the minority. Entering this new reality, I was intimidated because I didn’t exactly know how to interact with White people. So I simply didn’t interact with them; instead, I interacted with people who I felt looked like me or had a similar experience to me (so much for Duke's so-called diversity). Eventually I did interact with some white people, which thankfully made me question why I was intimidated in the first place. I discerned that I was associating whitiness with elitness and authority. A tendency, likely stemming from the media’s portrayal of white people coupled with internalized racism.
Eventually I did get over my first realization, but then the first day of classes rolled around, and I was smacked with another realization, dawning on me because of a detail so insignificant that most people wouldn’t even think about it. During my Stats 199 class, while I was getting my Chromebook out, I looked around and all I saw was a sea of Macs. That's when it hit me: I was most likely the poorest person in that room of 150 people. That small detail ushered an avalanche of other observations. Those observations were centered about how much wealth some Duke students have, and how much I don’t have. Through the observations, It didn’t take me long to understand what the low income part of that label meant.
Understanding that label didn’t empower me; instead it planted two insidious ideas. The first is that I was the ersatz version of a Duke student. I didn’t know how to play an instrument like other Duke students. I didn’t travel to some developing country to volunteer or have a startup like other Duke students. I didn’t even have a LinkedIn like other Duke students. Those thoughts weren’t rational since being a Duke student isn’t defined by any of those things. But knowing your thoughts and emotions are irrational is much easier than acting against those thoughts and emotions. The second idea that label planted in me is that I worked harder than any of those other wealthy Duke students to get here. This idea arose to keep my fragile pride in one piece. But this idea was as harmful as the first, if not more, since it made me discount the work of many of my friends and classmates. So where does one with both an inferiority and superiority complex go?
Into losing both complexes, hopefully. At least that's what I like to think happened to me through my interactions with different Duke students. The inferiority complex quickly dissipated through my interactions with individuals who were different from my warped view of what a Duke student should be. They were talented and passionate, but more importantly, they were unique. Through my friendship with those individuals, I came to understand that there wasn’t one definition of what a Duke student is. Instead, there are a plethora of definitions and more are being put in the dictionary everyday. With that realization, I also come to an understanding that comparing my effort to others is a lose/lose game. With those two ideas gone, I came to a final productive realization.
I am a low income minority student. A label that I am neither proud of or ashamed of, but I understand it to mean that I might need different types of help than my peers.
Lastly, here are 5 pieces of advice for new students with the same label.
1. Duke isn’t perfect by any means, but understand that there are a lot of resources that you shouldn’t be ashamed of using.
2. DukeLife is your friend.
3. Go to common rooms if you find yourself without a friend group after O week. Trust me, you will eventually find someone you vibe with.
4.Grab some paper, and list some of your biases before you come to Duke. Now, try to catch those biases through your actions and thoughts when interacting with someone.
5. NO ONE HAS THEIR LIFE FIGURED OUT. So don’t worry too much about what other people are doing.
Abdel Shehata is a Trinity freshman. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.
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