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What does success mean at Duke? An open letter to freshmen

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Dear Class of 2026:

I graduated from Duke last spring in the Class of 2022. From the moment I stepped foot on Duke’s campus, I was ecstatic to be a Blue Devil and highly motivated to get the most out of my college experience. But my enthusiasm was hampered by the worry that I wouldn’t be successful. Could I keep up with my classmates academically? Could I make good friends? Could I be accepted to any clubs? Could I balance my schoolwork, health, extracurriculars, and social life? As I confronted these worries, I considered many different ways to define success and whether my initial definitions of success at Duke were helpful or healthy.

In my senior year, I wanted to know how others at Duke defined success and whether some definitions were more advantageous than others. As a senior thesis (with Dr. Bridgette Hard in Psychology & Neuroscience), I asked Duke students to define success in their own words and describe how their definitions of success related to the definitions of their peers on a Qualtrics survey. Participants included 273 introductory psychology students enrolled in Fall 2021 who completed surveys for extra credit, as well as 103 students recruited through word of mouth and social media. We carefully analyzed students' responses by performing an iterative thematic coding process, bivariate correlations, and chi-square tests, which revealed some fascinating insights. Here is what we found about Duke students and how they define success:

Students at Duke tend to stereotype each other. Many students expected their peers to measure success using resume items (i.e., impressive academic, extracurricular, and professional achievement). They considered average Duke students to be “nerdy” people with fully developed life plans, going to college to land a high-paying job. This perception was far from the truth.

Duke students care about a lot more than good grades. Duke students define success in rich, nuanced ways. Each student’s definition of success included up to nine different themes including developing as a person, building meaningful relationships, learning, enjoying time on campus, preparing for post-college life, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and so much more. And, get this: students value social success way more than you may think. Most students mentioned social life when defining success, including meeting new people, making lasting friendships, going to social events, building a network, and connecting with professors and mentors.

Students' differences from each other are reflected in how they define success. We discovered that the types of goals students set in the classroom (i.e., to master new knowledge vs. to outperform peers) and their group memberships were reflected in their success definitions. For example, students who were motivated by an innate desire to gain knowledge were more likely to define success as “making the most” of their overall college experience. First generation college students were more likely than continuing generation students to define success as achieving personally defined goals or being proud of their accomplishments. 

Definitions of success relate to mental well-being. Students who define college success as intellectual growth report higher well-being. It may be that students who feel less caught up in grades and more focused on learning are generally more content. Surprisingly, students who define success as requiring balance or well-roundedness tend to score lower on well-being. These students may experience more pressure to achieve success in many areas of college life, leading to lower feelings of satisfaction.

Given this new understanding of what success means at Duke, what can you do to support your own success and that of your peers?

Examine what perceptions of success you have. Both prior research and our data suggest that higher well-being is associated with focusing on intrinsic markers of success like intellectual growth. I encourage you to connect to the deeper meaning behind your work and choose a major that you feel passionate about. Pursue an academic track that helps you reach success in terms of intellectual growth; it will be much more fulfilling.

Don’t assume that all Duke students care about are good grades – opportunities for social success are equally, if not more, important.  Our research serves as a reminder that while Duke students may seem to be “wired” for traditional achievement, they also really care about feeling connected with others. With the transition to QuadEx and being able to have parties on campus, I hope that students will recognize the value of building relationships and engaging in deeper connections as they progress through their time together at Duke. I encourage you to be open to bonding with each other, especially in scenarios where you may not expect it.

Encourage discussions of how we define success and why definitions differ from person to person. Our research highlighted some fascinating differences in how students define success. I urge you to speak openly with your peers about what they think success means and consider how unique lived experiences can impact how a student perceives, pursues, and reaches success. Work together to learn about each other’s backgrounds and goals and how they might lead to differing definitions of success.

I really hope that this snapshot of my findings can encourage you to reflect on what success means to you and to the people around you on campus. I wish you the best as you pursue whatever success means to you by making the most of the incredible opportunities this campus has to offer.

Malorie Lipstein is a Trinity alumna, Class of 2022.

Dr. Bridgette Hard is an Associate Professor of the Practice in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University as well as the Director of Undergraduate Studies for Psychology.


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