They say the first thing you learn at Duke is just how stupid you are.
I also learned that I don’t like birdwatching. Unfortunately for me, my time in biology has meant I’m always around at least one or two bird enthusiasts. It’s not like I don’t try to join in — I spent all last summer camping on a ranch with more than 262 bird species and barely managed to learn, like, five of their names, even with the best-illustrated field book south of Paraguay. No matter what, my birdwatching ability could never measure up to any of my image of myself as a naturalist.
Yes, it’s a bit silly, but my experience being a Duke student feels a whole lot like going birding, and we can thank imposter syndrome for that.
When I first landed at East Campus, I fell for the trap. The constant barrage of brilliant people — literally the next generation of thinkers, artists and athletes — made me feel lackluster. It certainly didn’t help that every opportunity at Duke is locked behind an application or some chaotic admissions process. My application to research salamanders in the Duke Forest? Rejected. Dance groups? Didn’t even audition. The ultimate frisbee team? Ghosted.
By some Dunning-Kruger miracle, I was saved from my freshman-year imposter-syndrome spiral by The Chronicle. There was no application to start writing articles — my only barrier of entry was attending a section meeting. Naturally, I went to the earliest one on the calendar, so on a Monday in 2019, I participated in Recess for the first time. I picked up an article that had me spend $25 on tickets to the Pittsboro Pepper Festival, drive 40 minutes to Pittsboro, attempt to interview people with a pen and pencil and take some of the worst photos The Chronicle’s website has ever seen. And then I wrote my first article.
The article is terrible. To my credit, it’s terrible in a cute way: I’m overzealous with my imagery, my lone quote is three words long and I end the piece with a cliche about “Chatham County at its best.” Even more to my credit, I stuck with writing for Recess. My writing eventually improved, and I transitioned from being talentless to being a talentless hack. And then, about a year ago, I woke up as Recess editor. I had the unique opportunity to make Recess even better, and I think I can proudly say I’m leaving Recess better than I left it. Now, no writer needs to fund their own travel to cover local arts events. Our coverage of arts events is finally recovering to pre-pandemic levels. Our writers have trained and improved so much over the course of the year and will be fantastic editors themselves in the near future. Even though neither the section nor I have been perfect, I’m so proud of how far we have come. I became editor for a section that I joined by coincidence and grew to love, and I really don’t think I ever would have imagined that could happen in my freshman year.
If anything, my time in Recess has shown me that imposter syndrome is such a stupid paradox. It’s impossible for all of us to be stupid in comparison to everyone else. And, I hate to break it to everyone, but all y’all Duke students are so exceptional. Unfortunately, Duke does not make it easy on us. The university will tell you that you do not belong: There’s no space for your affinity group in the Bryan Center. You deserve to be weeded out of your major. Oh, and even your car had better get out of Blue Zone.
Our best option in the face of institutional discouragement? Sadly, I don’t have the answers. I do know that I’m not the same person I was freshman year anymore, and, you know, I finally believe that I belong around campus. I’m proud to say that I’m proud of my growth. Even though I feel like I stopped aging when the pandemic started, in early April, my 22nd birthday arrived on a nondescript Wednesday. I celebrated by hiking deep into the woods of Eno River State Park. And there, alone, I listened to an old voicemail from my grandfather, who died last December. He wished me a happy birthday and left me with an inside joke about our birthdays being a day apart. I know I have so much support, and I am not alone in my pride. So I cried, right there in the forest.
But at least I didn’t have to go birding.
Jonathan Pertile is a Trinity senior and the outgoing Recess editor. He wants to thank Vol. 118 Recess for one of the most rewarding experiences of his life. He thanks Tessa Delgo for the four long years they’ve shared together in Recess, her beyond selfless help this year and her unwavering dedication to the arts at Duke and Durham. He extends warmest congratulations to Jules, Anna and Derek, who are going to bring Vol. 119 Recess to places he can only dream of. He thanks The Chronicle community, and he really and truly hopes that everyone can feel like they belong here, too.
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Jonathan Pertile is a Trinity senior and recess editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.