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Being a beginner at Duke

When I came to Duke as a freshman, I was excited to join clubs and groups that were unavailable to me in high school and experience activities that I had always admired from afar. I eagerly attended the Involvement Fair at the height of what felt like a never-ending heat wave and knew exactly what tables I wanted to visit. Now that I am in my third semester of school, I realize how naive I was. I assumed Duke was a place to try new things and learn about activities I always wanted to explore, and I was wrong.

The privileges and opportunities that we were granted in high school (and throughout our childhood) do not simply disappear once we come to Duke. When admission to so many extracurriculars here are contingent upon interviews, auditions, and lengthy applications, the experienced will always perform better. This means that the student who has developed the necessary skills for over a decade and/or possesses prior knowledge on the subject are more likely to see an acceptance email than those whose only exposure to said activity is YouTube. Yes, there are a select few that are extraordinarily talented off the bat and therefore admitted to these groups, but they are few and far between. Not everyone is a prodigy. Most people, like me, just want to try something new and are unable to because we know we cannot compete with others during this screening process.

It’s discouraging as a low-income student to come to Duke, see opportunities that were not previously available and be told that you were not selected time and time again. It’s crushing to learn that the ones who were granted admission have the heavily-developed skills that you lack. It’s even more discouraging to realize that despite Duke advertising itself as a place where anything is possible, that is not the full truth. Competing against students that attended private schools, come from wealthy backgrounds, have had increased access to opportunities or just possess plain talent means that the average student with nothing but a passion to learn will never be enough. 

I don’t share this to rant or complain. I have actually found a plethora of groups that have welcomed me despite my limited skill set. These organizations have valued my ideas and creativity, and have told me, “It’s okay if you are new to this. We’ll help you learn.” Many other organizations on campus could learn a lot from the inclusivity of these groups. I acknowledge that a certain standard has to be maintained, especially for those groups that compete outside of Duke, but even just acknowledging these disparities (instead of giving false hope by showing the select few who made it without experience) can go a long way. To selective groups: be honest and upfront. Let interested students know what you’re looking for so they know if they meet the basic qualifications needed. If you want people with experience—just say that.

To students who may relate to this feeling, I assure you all that opportunities do exist. You can start new things here, but it may take some deeper digging and a willingness to truly try things outside of your comfort zone. Look at new clubs that just started and are heavily recruiting. See if opportunities in Durham are a better fit for you. Or start a project with some friends and focus your time and energy on that. I have been fortunate to try so many new things and discover new passions that are accessible to me because I looked in different places. Above all, don’t become discouraged just because you don’t get into your dream club. You can always follow their updates and cheer them on from the sidelines.

Sonia Green is a Trinity second-year. Her column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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