Dear Class of 2020,
You made it.
Being here is a huge accomplishment. And one that people—you, too, probably—have dreamed of for a long time.
I’m sure you have big expectations. That Duke will be the greatest university in the world. That you will feel happy and loved and challenged and safe. That Duke will provide countless opportunities and that each day will help you strive toward your bigger goal of making this world a better place. That Duke will give you what you’ve paid for: a great education and a solid foundation to take this world by storm.
But expectations are messy.
Sometimes when we set our expectations too high, we are more disappointed than we ever thought possible. Sometimes the people we expect the most from, let us down the most. Sometimes the institutions we expect to make us great fail us so greatly.
For a while, I blamed those people. I blamed those institutions.
But lately I realized I should really be blaming myself.
I can’t expect every person I meet to be a perfect friend. I can’t expect Duke to be a perfect place. I can’t expect every opportunity to open to me and then to be challenging and rewarding. I can’t set such high expectations.
And that’s why I want to warn you. This isn’t a pessimistic letter. No, I want it to be the most encouraging words you could read. I want you to set your expectations low. I want you to expect that you will feel lonely sometimes, that classes will kick your butt, that the social culture will be overwhelming, that your identity as always being the It Person will fade, and that Duke will be very, very challenging. Because if you set your expectations low, then you will be able to face each obstacle thrown at you with poise and grace.
I didn’t set my expectations low. I set them so high that I told my parents on the first day of move-in that I was excited for the best four years of my life. I told them I was going to get involved in everything, that I was very prepared for my classes, that Duke would be the greatest place on the planet and that I would never want to leave.
Though there are parts of Duke that I love so, so much, there are also so many parts I do not like. If I had set my expectations lower, I could have taken a deep breath when I realized the social culture was not what I wanted and found other friends. If I had set my expectations lower, I could have taken a deep breath when I realized I wasn’t doing well in a class and gotten a tutor. If I had set my expectations lower, I could have taken a breath when I realized I was homesick and gone home for the weekend.
Duke is an incredible place. But not because someone else says so, or because you expect it to be. Rather, it’s a great place because you choose to fight through it, to push on when the going gets tough, to love the beautiful parts and accept the not so beautiful parts.
I have never felt more loved and encouraged in one place than I have at Duke. I have never felt more accomplished, more inspired, more capable than I have at Duke. But I have also never felt lonelier, more defeated, or more exhausted than I have at Duke. And when I hit those low moments, I was more upset that my expectations hadn’t been met than I was that I was feeling that way.
I shouldn’t be sad, I’d tell myself. This is supposed to be the best four years of my life, I’d criticize myself. Something is wrong with me, I’d think.
But that’s simply false. Whoever is lying and telling you that Duke is perfect and every moment of your four years will be roses and butterflies is sadly mistaken. And I tell you that so that you can breathe a sigh of relief when Duke throws you a curveball. When your friends are being mean. When you’re stressed and overwhelmed. Because you are not alone in having a bad day. You are not alone in questioning if you’re supposed to be here. You are not alone in feeling defeated.
And if you believe that—truly accept and believe that Duke is a great place but not a perfect place—you won’t be as sad when things don’t go your way. You won’t be as upset when you don’t get into some club or don’t make some team or are still figuring out your friend group or feel homesick. Because the tough parts are true parts of Duke, too, and they’re ones we should start talking about.
You will have an amazing experience at Duke. But every student at this school is personally doing you a dis-service if we do not warn you that it will be hard. Every student at every college across the country is doing its students a dis-service if he or she acts as if every moment of one’s four years will be perfect. It’s simply untrue and creates dangerous, disappointing expectations.
So what’s the one piece of advice I wish someone had told me freshman year?
To set my expectations low so that Duke would exceed them in every way, so that I could accept the crappy parts and rejoice over the beautiful parts, and so that I could feel wholly loved and challenged.
So, Class of 2020, be the first class to set your expectations low. Be the class to rise above the difficult parts of Duke and find your niche. Be the class who remains pleasantly surprised instead of aggressively frustrated. Be the class who inspires the rest of us to remember what we love about Duke and to forget about what we don’t. Be the class who starts a new generation.