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Giving up

Riley Hicks

Freshman year, I sat on a squeaky wooden stool on the second floor of Lilly Library across from my two best friends, Claire and Grace. We got to talking about what we wanted to study and I was struck with the fact that I didn’t know. 


So, I did the rational thing: printed out the list of the 53 majors Duke offered. With a blue pen in hand, I crossed off the majors that I wouldn't even consider, and kept those I was willing to explore. But I didn’t even narrow things down. I found it impossible to shrink the list down to 20, let alone 10 majors. That day, I decided that I would dip my toe into every possible bucket I could before I settled on the one I found the most enjoyable. I figured it would come naturally. 


Every semester, I found myself changing my intended major. My top contenders included neuroscience, computer science, statistics, public policy, psychology, and sociology. As I took more and more classes, I continued to ask myself why none of them fully satisfied me. I enjoyed bits and pieces of each major, but nothing seemed like the right fit. 


With the pressure of the Sophomore year major declaration coming up in the Spring, I scrolled through the “Academic Possibilities” page on the Duke website. My eyes lit up and my heart skipped a beat as I read the small white box titled “Program II”. Discovering Program II was like finding the missing piece to a puzzle. Their website reads: “We serve the needs of students whose intellectual interests cross departmental boundaries or who perceive areas of learning in clusters other than others offered in majors.” 


“Ah hah! That’s it. That’s ME.”


When I first embarked on this journey, I was excited and curious about what my Duke experience could become with this new, fancy, never-been-done-before degree. I thought that this was what would make me different from everyone. I thought that this was what I wanted because I had been told that “college is all about personalizing your academic path”. I thought that this would make me feel happy and fulfilled. 


And so, I created: “Mental Health and Digital Interventions”. 


The curriculum was based around the idea that technology is the root cause of the mental health crisis, yet there are ways that we can use technology to improve mental health. I was so curious about the relationship between mental health and technology that I assumed it would make for a great Program II. 


I worked day and night on my proposal and it became something that I was incredibly proud of. Now, I was finally able to answer the age-old question of “what are you majoring in?” and elicit an impressed response from my family and peers. The 10 pages of single-spaced text embodied the culmination of who I was as a Duke student: curious, ambitious, and bright.


One week after I clicked submit, I received a heart-wrenching email from the Director of Program II starting with “I am sorry to tell you..your application is timely and shows promise…” 

As my tear-filled eyes glazed over the text, I became both infuriated and confused; the rest of the email didn’t matter. How could they reject the ideas I was so clearly passionate about? How could they reject me? I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. Suddenly something I needed so badly was out of reach. I felt like a failure, which was something I refused to accept.


After being rejected in the April application cycle, I surrendered to the idea that my curriculum wasn’t fully flushed out. The Program II committee just didn’t understand where I was coming from. With time over the summer to recover from the initial rejection, I was able to pick myself up and come back with a stronger application in the Fall. I refused to give up. Sleep-deprived, I attended multiple meetings in between my summer jobs, squeezed in a couple of hours every so often to work on my draft, and arrived on campus in the Fall with what I believed to be a solid application. 


My advisor wrote back to me with a multitude of changes, additions of courses I hadn’t picked myself, and a suggested re-work of my overarching idea. As always, I responded with a “Yes” and got right to work. My ambition and fear of failure pushed me to overload my schedule with a class that I didn’t truly like, but did so to “increase my chances of getting my Program II approved”, so of course, I was going to do it. 

After all, it would be worth it when it’s all over, right? 


I added the fifth class, canceled social plans, and glued myself to my desk in my Swift apartment. Every minute of my day was planned to the second because I had to finish my classwork, revise and rewrite my Program II curriculum, and tend to my extracurricular commitments. 


My work consumed me. I became angry and tense -- a version of myself that I did not like. My mental state began to affect my physical well-being; I felt queasy, exhausted, and tired all the time. I snapped at people I loved.


If I am being honest, I am not sure when specifically the breaking point for me was, but I came to realize that this is not how I wanted to live and it is not who I am. I kept asking myself “Why am I doing this?” and “Who am I doing this for?”


I realized that the only reason I was putting myself through this stress was for approval from others. I was full of angst towards the Program II committee for rejecting me and had a desire to be different from my peers. I was afraid of giving up and not being seen by others as impressive, smart, and unique. But aren’t we all here because we are just that: impressive, smart, and unique? 


The past eight months of my life were spent on a project that I attributed too much of my worth to. I gave up my mental and physical health for its success. It didn’t occur to me how much other people’s perceptions of me and my fear of giving up had controlled my actions. Refusing to give up drove me to become someone who was far from myself and someone who I never want to be ever again. 


Giving up does not make you “less smart” or lazy. Giving up on something can open doors that you might’ve been afraid to consider ever before in your life. Giving up on something can give you more time to find a new passion, get lunch with a friend, or just let you be you. 

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