When I applied to Duke in the fall of 2019 as an angsty seventeen year old longing to get far away from home, I only had to answer one application question: Why Duke?
Less than 250 words. Easy.
I didn’t know all that much about Duke. No one from my high school in a small town in East Texas had ever come here and I never went on a tour. The only time I visited Duke was for my aunt and uncle’s wedding when I was thirteen. They were the only Duke alumni I knew. But I was captivated by their stories of nights in K-ville (which I thought was pronounced kri-zee-zew-skee ville at the time), anecdotes of hiking trips with their pre-orientation friends, or the Harry Potter themed Writing 101 class my aunt always talked about.
I wrote about wanting to go to “a school where there is tremendous pride.” I said I was enticed by the fact that “Duke has a breadth of opportunities that can allow me to find new interests and become more involved in my community.” I believed that the “unmatched eagerness and dedication for every activity” that Duke students displayed proved that this was the place for me.
I had a vision in my head about how everything would go once I arrived on campus. I would meet so many nice people on move-in day. I would be enchanted by my classes and professors. I would feel at home within the first week or so.
Sure, my parents were telling me that the transition to college was a difficult one, but I did not heed their warning. I thought “No no no, not at Duke. Duke is absolutely perfect. I’ll fall right into place.”
Duke was actually not like the brochure version of college that I expected. I had a really difficult time making friends and finding my people. It seemed like everyone else already had their groups from their pre-orientations or their gap year programs with other Duke students or their big-city meet-ups.
It was the polar opposite of what I expected and I thought my loneliness was permanent.
Why Duke? Why did I come here?
I started asking people from my classes to have meals even if I was nervous that they would say no, I made an effort to say hi to people on my floor, and I went to meetings for so many different clubs and groups if I thought they sounded the slightest bit interesting. I even signed up for Duke Club Fishing and ordered a t-shirt that I proudly still wear even though I never actually went to a meeting. I slowly began to feel like I belonged here. I found people who were interested in the same things as me and appreciated me.
I no longer feel as out of place as I did my first semester as I cried alone in my dorm room.
But those initial doubts about finding my place and feelings of loneliness led me to go down a rabbit hole of finding things to criticize about Duke. It made me feel more mature, more grown-up, to be able to find things that I felt needed to be corrected even if I was starting to have a great time here.
It comforted me to find out that I wasn’t the only person that housed these doubts about our university. I’ve had countless conversations with friends about how toxic we think hook-up culture is here, how we hate the pressure to not only thrive academically but also socially, how CAPS is not as accessible a resource as we hoped it would be, so on and so forth.
For some reason, we all take solace in the fact that no one else thinks it’s perfect here, either. We’ll sometimes fantasize about what our life might be like at another university. A more perfect place, since we might have chosen wrong. We act like Duke is the only school that has a dysfunctional social system. The only school that makes the students feel pressured to be perfect. The only school that does not fulfill all of its promises.
Duke drops the ball in more than a few ways. And the harder we look, the more we will find.
But Duke fails in a lot of ways that are not unique to Duke.
Recently I was complaining about some aspect of social life that I felt was specific to our school, and someone said to me: well you’re absolutely right about that, but you should just change the word Duke to college.
And that was exactly what I needed to hear.
I was anxious about coming back to Duke for my sophomore year after a long four months away. During the first few weeks of the semester I allowed myself to focus on all of the things that I thought were wrong with Duke, and I even wondered if I really belonged here. I asked myself again, Why Duke?
But after realizing that a lot of my criticisms about this place were prevalent at other schools too, I felt relieved.
No, Duke is not perfect. No, not everyone likes it here. I don’t even think there’s anyone that likes it all of the time. But there is not a school that exists where everyone is happy all the time. College is just objectively hard sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
You’re going to feel uncomfortable. You’re going to feel like you’re out of place. You’ll get lost in the sea of thousands of people who seem to have it all together. You might question if the values of this university accurately reflect your own. But these are all universal experiences for college students everywhere. It’s not just here and it’s not just you, I promise.
And even though we could come up with a million little things that Duke could fix, we could probably come up with a million and one reasons why we’re grateful to be here.
I wouldn’t trade the long, cold hours spent in K-ville waiting to get into Cameron with my friends, the coffee chats with my advisor, the view of the Chapel from the Wellness Center, the candid conversations about life with professors in office hours, the afternoons spent soaking up the sun on the BC Plaza, the late nights in Pitchforks, the shared pieces of pumpkin bread from Cafe, and the people I’ve met here for anything in the entire world.
I am so passionate about all of those things and more, and most people I know here could also come up with a long list. I think the passion that exists in us is what makes Duke worth it.
Why Duke? Because even if my experience has not been as flawless as I imagined it would be back in 2019, there are so many things about this place that I’ve fallen in love with.