I hate the “why this college” essay. In full honesty, it feels like an excuse for universities to stroke their own egos with overt and inflated flattery. It is never drawn on any realistic account of the college from current students but rather what each of us hoped our time would be like.
I recently opened the document with my “Why Duke” essay from four years ago. It’s difficult to read. The naivety, the ignorance, the optimism – a stunning juxtaposition to my true experience at Duke. I can’t make peace with that essay.
As I leave Duke and conclude my time with Recess, I decided to rewrite it. And, I rewrote it four, five, six times. After everything, it’s hard to miss something you barely got to experience. The words on the page were just all the boxes that I didn’t check: study abroad canceled, internships turned virtual, unfulfilled job opportunities. Only one year of my entire college experience wasn’t marred by the pandemic. So, here we are, four years later, and I’m giving it another go.
This is my “Why Duke” essay.
When I left for college, I wanted to get away, transcend the quiet suburban bubble of Orange County, California. It began as all college journeys should: chaotic, messy and exhausting. I tried to balance my newfound freedoms with the challenges of Duke academics and was instead met with the unprecedented necessity that is sleep.
After a month at Duke, I stumbled upon a Recess meeting. A year later, I found myself at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, subsumed into the world of film alongside Alec Baldwin and Kirsten Johnson and treated as an equal to New York Times and Washington Post journalists alike. It was my last trip before the entire world changed. And, just like that, I found myself at home, trapped in a spring break that never ended.
Yet, in a strange way, I am grateful for the 10 months I spent back in Orange County. I finally got to be the sister my little brother deserved. I would sit, reading papers for class while my brother incessantly mumbled Pokémon terms and covered my computer screen with Animal Crossing theories. My classroom became my childhood bedroom, and my brother, my classmate. Unexpected is an understatement.
Then, we returned to a university that wasn’t ready for us. Cases kept rising. Restrictions tightened. It was as if the worst was yet to come. I questioned why I had elected to leave my home only to pay rent several thousand miles away with the same virtual curriculum.
COVID-19 and the resulting endless isolation was a test of the strength of relationships. My friend circle contracted and inflated, matching the alternative truths presented about the tragedies around us and their subsequent psychological impacts. While financially, the return to Duke was perhaps foolish, being wrapped in the shuttered world of my age demographic at least granted a college-like feeling.
And that brings us to today. The pandemic (now epidemic) is certainly not over but at least, we may get a break from the restrictions. I still catch myself in shock seeing the lower half of my classmates’ faces. I don’t think the world will ever be the same but at least, I get some version of normality, the Duke I once knew, before graduation.
Sitting in West Union, breathing in the familiar smells of Sazon, Il Forno and Tandoor and listening to students complaining about looming midterms, I reflect on my freshman year self. A part of me feels angry, not at that past version of me, but at the decade-plus of college ideation embedded in Western culture. Even without the unprecedented reality of a global pandemic, the bar was through the roof for what I wanted, no, required, from Duke.
Maybe it was impossible from the start. Maybe COVID-19 just provided a horrible, catastrophic lens to view the reality of college and its unfeasible cultural manifestations. Or, maybe this is me just trying to find meaning in tragedy. Who knows.
What I did get from college was the best relationships I have ever had, rigorous academics that pushed my understanding of history, social justice and empathy, a relationship with my little brother that I wouldn’t trade for anything and a plethora of experiences, though not all great, that I will carry with me.
This is not the loving, final farewell I expected four years ago, scribbling down words to depict my idealistic vision of Duke. It is in fact several standard deviations from that manufactured expectation of myself and my college experience. And maybe, this doesn’t even answer the question “Why Duke.” But, what I do have, however limited it may seem at times, is something that I know hurts to leave behind. I just wish I had more time.–Kerry Rork, local arts editor
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