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The "ideal" Duke experience

  

Duke does a superb job at branding itself. 

Entire teams of professionals have been enlisted to operate its extensive marketing apparatus, each specializing in its own forte. 

Skilled photographers are always lurking in the background, camera in hand, ever-ready to capture breathtaking chapel sunsets, picturesque scenes of families picnicking in the garden, and the crowd favorites—Keith and Gold— surrounded by fawning students. They immortalize and preserve these rosy facades of campus life in the university’s ever-growing digital repository, amongst which the best are cherry-picked for homepages, wallpapers, posters and calendars.

Strategic social media analysts practically live on the internet, constantly surveying the sentiments on the ground to determine the most opportune windows for propagating content and identifying trends across the most popular stories and posts. Talented graphic designers experiment with different styles to create eye-catching content based on this feedback, making sure to incorporate design elements that appeal to the crowd to maximize user engagement.

Believe it or not, the university even has an entire website devoted to documenting guidelines that govern every minute branding detail—from official logos to font pairings and color hex codes—all in the name of enforcing consistency over the numerous departments and organizations under its umbrella. 

Clearly, when it comes to the gargantuan task of cultivating and curating its shimmering reputation as a gothic wonderland—where opportunities abound, resources are aplenty and possibilities are endless—Duke takes its business very seriously. This is archetypal of a profit-driven private institution. Recruiting the crème de la crème is, after all, critical for maintaining and bolstering its standing in academics, sports, and arts to attract lucrative donations from proud and successful alumni.

As a starry-eyed high schooler, I wholeheartedly imbibed and embraced the image of the “ideal” college experience advertised by this marketing campaign. Before the reality of the acceptance letter had even registered in my mind, I drafted a comprehensive list of all the classes, clubs, organizations, research laboratories and programs I was interested in, leaving no stone unturned as I scoured social media, emails and websites for potential opportunities. The sheer volume was exhilarating, but daunting. 

Even after successfully outlining an elaborate four-year plan that incorporated most of these activities, I worried that I was being overly ambitious—but this fear hardly compared to the obligation I felt to manifest the vision of college life that had been ingrained in me. I was determined to maximize the limited time at Duke I had so painstakingly earned. How could it, when I was constantly besieged by reminders of the honor and privilege associated with being a Duke student? 

Throughout freshman year, this plan was constantly revisited and revised, as I discovered the hidden caveats to the “ideal” college experience—the fine print buried at the bottom of the brochure that no one really pays much attention to. 

The abundance of opportunities is undeniable, but so are the intense competition and tales of rejection, no longer a stranger to seasoned upperclassmen. My plan to try something new has fallen flat, thwarted by the high barriers to entry. Many student groups claim that prior experience isn’t required, but acceptance is based on the unspoken condition that you possess some level of skill or potential that sets you apart from the multitudes of proficient and talented candidates vying for the same spot. 

At times, I felt out of my element while participating in the activities in my blueprint. I tried my best to be a social butterfly at parties and rush events, getting to know strangers who probably wouldn’t recall our encounter the day after and feigning interest in conversations with people who hardly paid attention half the time. But as an introvert who enjoys forging deep connections with a select handful of friends, I lacked the energy to pull it off. I dreaded the pointless small talk and wondered if I had thrust myself too far outside my comfort zone. 

Yet, even after ruling out the activities I either couldn’t or didn’t want to participate in, I realized that I simply didn’t have time to do everything I was interested in. I didn’t like having a finger in every pie, my perfectionist tendencies refusing to condone the shoddy work that would inevitably result from stretching myself so thin. College classes were more demanding and rigorous than I had anticipated, and with academics high on my list of priorities, I knew that I would have to give up on some extracurricular opportunities to ensure that I could invest enough time in each of my commitments. There were countless nights when I wanted to go out and have fun with friends but was beckoned back to the desk by piles of undone work. 

As the items on my college bucket list were erased one after the other, the guilt of not “living it up” ate away at my conscience. I was ashamed of not making full use of the plethora of resources available, and worried that my decision to sit out on many “core” experiences was diminishing the value and authenticity of my college experience—that it made me less of a Duke student. 

Now, as a sophomore, I’m no longer a puppet on strings, allowing this senseless bucket list to dictate my decisions and dominate my emotions. I’ve accepted that everyone’s college experience is unique—mine is what I choose to make of it. On hindsight, I’m sure I already knew that coming into Duke. But instead of going through the painstaking and daunting process of finding my passion and purpose in this massive gothic wonderland, I opted for the easier way out—trying to do everything. 

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve gleaned over the past year is that there is nothing more foolish than jumping on the bandwagon mindlessly or doing things out of pure obligation. I’ve learned that the “ideal” college experience is not so much about striking items off a bucket list out of meaningless necessity, as carving out a niche for myself on this colossal campus. It is seeking out opportunities that are truly worth investing my time and energy in and having conviction in the choices I make eventually, even if they deviate from everyone else’s.

Valerie Tan is a Pratt second-year. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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