At Duke, we serve ourselves

It was the day of my first final of last semester, and a cold spell had settled over Duke. I sat in Cafe, sipping on masala chai to restore some semblance of warmth to my veins and to distract myself from the test anxiety quivering in my chest. 

As I focused on my breathing, a middle-aged man with black baggy pants and white stains on his brown shirt slid into my view.

But what caught my eye were the two hospital bracelets encircling each of his wrists. A shiver crept down my spine. Was he okay? Did he need help?

Shaking off my uneasiness, I was getting ready to head to the library when two armed police officers entered Cafe. All eyes were glued to the scene as they gripped the man from each side, escorting him off the premises. 

This incident has been seared into my brain. I’m not quite sure why, but I reckon it has something to do with the behavior of other patrons in Cafe that day. While I may have also misinterpreted the situation, it seemed to me that their body language, such as the side glances, sent a clear message: This man did not belong here. 

And what was even more disturbing was that it’s not uncommon for non-Duke-affiliated patrons to be spotted in WU. But this man, whose lower socioeconomic status slotted him in a narrow minority on this campus, was not welcome. 

I'd heard of the “Duke bubble” before, but that day marked the first time it jumped out at me so clearly — this tangible boundary between those who call Duke home and those who call Durham home. 

The critique of this division is omnipresent in Duke student circles. We commonly fault the location of Duke’s main campus in the middle of a forest, with its stately Gothic architecture far removed from the modest bricks and quiet cobblestones that characterize downtown Durham. 

As much as this separation is engendered by the architectural nuances of Duke’s campus and the socioeconomic divisions between a university whose endowment is approximately $11.6 billion and a city where 13.2% of the population lives below the poverty line, it is also perpetuated by the actions and decisions of many Duke students, whose academic and professional choices steer them away from the general population comprising Durham and into social circles oozing with generational wealth and professions promising six-figure salaries. 

Mandating service work as a graduation requirement would help diffuse the concentrated tensions around career building and professionalism to a useful cause, skillfully deploying Duke students’ talents in arenas where they can do good. Besides eroding the Duke bubble, this service work would offer students a whole set of other benefits, including combatting predispositions to depression, developing social and relationship skills and cultivating general life satisfaction.   

Prestigious schools such as Duke University pride themselves on creating change makers — here, we engineer the leaders of tomorrow. Our students are supposed to use the privilege of their education to enrich the lives of those around them. And most of our students do arrive on this campus with virtuous dreams of making a difference (just think about what you wrote in your college application essays). But soon the lofty price tag with which this education begins to weigh on us, and we veer away from our passions of altruism into careers with the promise of financial security. 

Thus, we devote ourselves to the pursuit of tomorrow. We devise solutions for all the issues that we see arising in the future on the macroscopic level, as our class discussions center around topics such as issues of AI domination and destructive nuclear war. 

But what about those people, like the man in Cafe, whose suffering is palpable in the here and now? Are we, collectively, doing enough to ease their burdens?

Now, there are initiatives at Duke in service of this mission, such as classes with mandatory service learning components, programs organized by the Duke Partnership for Service, and fully funded nonprofit internship experiences through Duke Engage. However, almost all of these programs are opt-in. As a result, the students who are able to use their education in service of others are mostly those with prior inclinations towards service work. A mandatory service learning requirement for graduation would allow students from all academic backgrounds to reap the benefits of service work. 

I have learned so much since coming to Duke, and my mind has developed in ways I couldn’t fathom. I have availed the vast benefits of a liberal arts education through my study of the plight of maternal healthcare during WWI, the evolutionary connections between life in the sea and mankind, and the emergence of prices from the intersection of supply and demand. 

But stored within me, this knowledge is futile. For my education to be worth its while, I must use my academic lessons to catalyze the betterment of those around me. Equally important are those who breathe life into the abstract concepts stored in my brain — those women who suffer the real-world consequences of the anti-abortion policies that I write memos about, those children in marginalized communities whose development I read papers about and those local people whose human rights abuses I lead discussions about.

Ultimately, they can teach me far more than writing a paper with a word limit of 1500. The facts will fade, but the experiences I have engaging with them will stay, etched into my brain, calling me back to serve them.

Advikaa Anand is a Trinity sophomore. Her column typically runs on alternating Thursdays.

Advikaa Anand | Opinion Managing Editor

Advikaa Anand is a Trinity sophomore and an opinion managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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