Missing out isn't an option

Constant choice-making, around everything from course selection to career preparation, makes students very purposeful—and very busy.
June 1, 2016

It’s weirdly warm on campus—late winter, late at night. Or early in the morning. The distinction is murky. So is the atmosphere. I think the fog is as thick and heavy as slow-to-pour barbecue sauce—which means I’m too tired to think up a better metaphor. The Gothic Wonderland, in its shrouded and silent state, looks like a forbidden zone.

Even at such an odd hour, students can choose to be active. Between midnight and 8 o’clock in the morning, Café Edens, in Edens Quad, draws more than 200 students for offerings like the “Haystack”—fries with bacon, jalapenos, cheddar cheese, and chorizo gravy. That’s a piling- on-of-calories pursuit. For a perhaps more virtuous spectacle, I check out the Wilson Recreation Center; under a huge “Work Smart, Play Well” sign, students are grimly attached to cardio machines.

Calories are added or subtracted, as student whims demand, but the library is constant—the chosen destination for academic achievers, whenever. An official traffic count, from this particular stretch, showed 216 student visitors to the library between midnight and 1 o’clock in the morning, joined by another 100 between 2 and 3 a.m.

When I visit a few hours later, around 6 a.m., I find students inhabiting every layer of the library: Next to the reference area’s multi-volume Encyclopedia Universal Illustrada, a sophomore is absorbed in math and economics— and alternatively bonded to his iPhone. Down in the fashionably techie library space called the Link, a junior, clasping a Starbucks Frappuccino, is plotting a predators-and-prey simulation on his laptop. Up a few levels, I avoid disturbing a sleeping, headphone-wearing student; he’s defined his sleeping niche with a laptop, a spiral notebook, and presumably cooling coffee in a Styrofoam cup.

Duke rewards students with a remarkable array of choices. Constant choice-making makes students very purposeful, and very busy. In a Chronicle column this spring, Alena Sadiq, a sophomore, had this to say: “Campus culture often puts a lot of value on work and staying busy. Oh, you are doing two majors? I’m doing THREE. (I know that’s not a thing, but just for the sake of argument.) You are part of three clubs? I’m part of six AND overloading. Beat that. No, don’t (actually, please don’t).”

For students, options are ever-expanding, and anxiety over making the wrong choices, or insufficient choices, is ever-present. That includes choice-making about life after college.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by their twenty-seventh birthday, only 14 percent of recent college graduates had jobs that lasted at least two years. Bill Wright-Swadel, Duke’s Fannie Mitchell Executive Director of career services, thinks a lot about such statistics, pointing as they do to a fluid career environment. “Choices are very cumulative for students,” he says. “They’re looking to understand what the expectations are of them and what then they need to do in meeting those expectations.”

The process of sorting through choices—choices about courses, activities, internships—begins at what he calls “the point of launch,” when students begin at Duke and wonder what post-college success might look like. The work of his office, as Wright-Swadel sees it, is to help guide students through a developmental process that involves, in no small part, rationalizing their choices, building a narrative around the choices, and figuring out how the choices contribute to making them adaptable in a career universe that is itself ever-changing.

Wright-Swadel says today’s students should expect to change jobs, employers, and career paths many times over their lives— including finding jobs that don’t even exist yet. More and more employers, he says, are embracing a project-based model not unlike the template for producing a Hollywood film: They recruit the kind of talent they need for the precise duration they need. Employment, then, is short-term. Another aspect of that trend: Some start-ups are bound to phase out or get scooped up in an acquisition process.

Such a hiring landscape “fits the desire of recent graduates, in their careers, to experience a range of cultures, environments, and assignments”—a desire for choice-making over the imperative to stay put. “They’re not necessarily hoping to be hired by someone who’s going to be their longtime corporate parent.”

In a seminar I teach on storytelling, students talk about anxieties surrounding not distant post-graduation plans, but rather the blatantly present Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO, phenomenon. Basically, it refers to an informal kind of peer pressure, often communicated through social networks, to take in some cool thing. The cool thing can be a party in a dorm section; it also can be a particular study-abroad experience, an internship that might lead to a job, or a course with a popular professor.

As one student in the seminar said, “It’s about taking advantage of what others are already taking advantage of. There’s this incredible thing someone else is doing, and I need to be doing it, too. It can apply to everything.” Another student, who works as an admissions tour guide, recalled how her fellow guides, in their self-introductions, would recite a personal roster of campus activities. That pushed her to bulk up her own list.

It can be a struggle for students, or for anybody, to work through their regret over what may not be the perfect choice. Choosing from the offerings in this spring’s Archive literary festival, I took in a reading by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, an easygoing, self-deprecating presence on the stage of the Nelson Music Room. One of the poems he selected, happily enough, feeds into the phenomenon of FOMO: Should I indulge in the enticements of Italy, or to take the (stay-at-home) path of least resistance? Called “Consolation,” the poem begins—in a tone that’s at once sardonic and regretful—“ How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,/wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hill towns./ How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets, fully grasping the meaning of every road sign and billboard/and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.”

There’s the poetry of FOMO. Also rich with research potential, FOMO has become a focus for Jacqueline Rifkin, a second-year Ph.D. student at the Fuqua School. One blustery morning, I sit down with her in Fuqua’s airy and glistening Fox Student Center and order a chai tea, iced. College students, because of their social-media habits and the tightness of their peer connections, are particularly susceptible to the FOMO phenomenon, she tells me. “Students really define themselves by the groups they identify with. They have a great need to belong, and their self-esteem to a large extent is defined by their peers.”

The downside, she adds, is that the fear of missing out, or of being shut out, can inhibit their ability to enjoy what they’re doing. Think of them (and it’s not tough to do) being bombarded by images of their peers bonding, in real time, around some activity from which they happen to be removed. They perceive a “social-identity threat”—that is, a threat to their sense of belonging. They’re worried that they made the wrong choice.

It’s not just that students feel pressure from the choices of their peers. They also expect more and more choices from their university. In that sense, Rifkin points out, universities act a lot like commercial brands. No yogurt-maker is going to limit consumer offerings to just vanilla; the consumer may instead be presented with a dozen varieties. No university, if it’s smart in its marketing, is going to boast of a limited choice of majors or activities. More choices for students to grab after, and more things for students to regret missing out on.

Back in the fall of 2009, students pushed for a particular recreational opportunity. They wanted to found a Quidditch team that would bring the fictional sport from the Harry Potter series to life. Now it’s well-established as “Duke’s second-best hoops team.” As the website describes it, it has “blossomed from a ragtag group of half a dozen individuals into an organized, financially stable, fifty-plus-member team that is competitive on the local, regional, and national stages.”

Dream of new choices, and the campus may deliver. Consider a recent Chronicle editorial, embracing the view of student activists, that an Asian-American studies major would be “a no-brainer.” According to the editorial, “While not every field of academic study or research necessarily deserves a department or program of study, the relevance of this area to students is clear and has time and time again been brought up.”

The dean of academic affairs for Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Lee Baker, told the student newspaper that neither the East Asian nor the South Asian studies certificates have been particularly popular. He added that there have not been many Asian-American studies proposals within the university’s Program II, which allows for self-designed curriculums. The Chronicle’s take on that current measure of interest: Build a major, and students will choose it. As the editorial put it, low enrollment numbers may simply “reflect a dearth of opportunities for students and incentives for professors” around Asian-American studies.

The curriculum can seem like a grab-bag. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions tells prospective students that they can choose from some 4,000 courses each semester. As they go through Duke, they can choose among fifty-four majors, fifty-two minors, and twenty-one interdisciplinary certificates. More than 80 percent will go beyond a single major to earn at least one more major, minor, or certificate. With the ability to create combinations of the three, students will have 437,989 unique academic combinations available—a figure arrived at, no doubt, by a former math major with marketing smarts derived from a certificate program.

New students are assured that they “can get assistance in sorting through all the opportunities” by meeting with a director of academic engagement, essentially an expert navigator in the Academic Advising Center. The larger message: Don’t miss out.

There are, for example, opportunities, through the Global Education Office, for study on six continents, from Ghana to Greece, from Singapore to St. Petersburg. Or, students can look to domestic destinations away from campus: They can be studying financial markets in New York, federal policymaking in Washington, or geographically appropriate themes in Los Angeles, Chicago, or Silicon Valley.

One of my students has been weighing, with some degree of consternation, the right way to go for “experiential learning.” Very different places, very different endeavors: Madagascar- based fieldwork, through Bass Connections, that builds on the ties between evolution and health challenges; or Honduras- based projects through the group Duke Engineers in International Development. Do those choices seem too limiting? She might also consider DukeEngage, DukeImmerse, humanities laboratories, Winter Forum, service-learning classes, and more.

Students always have found choices outside the curriculum. Duke catalogues from the 1950s boast of student councils in various iterations, clubs in sociology and chemistry, the campus radio station, and various engineering societies. Just a week or so into their first semester, today’s freshmen find their East Campus Quad overtaken by an activities fair. Students tell me that they’ll sign up for just about everything that’s instantly appealing. With time, they’ll narrow down their choices—only to find that with their initial expression of interest, a campus organization will bombard them forever.

Interested in badminton? There’s an organized activity for you. Likewise, investment, innovation, Asian-American theater, Buddhist meditation, Orthodox Christianity, Jewish life, curling, cricket, healthy cooking, water polo, mock trial, migration issues, robotics, martial arts, and juggling and circus arts.

David Pittman, director of student life in the Student Affairs division, tells me there are about 300 official student organizations, in more than a dozen categories, including “business,” “faith and religious,” “leadership,” “political/activist,” and “pre-professional.” Two of the biggest categories, these days, are “arts and performing” and “science and technology.” Official status means, among other things, that a group has been nurtured by a so-called launch team of fellow students and is officially recognized and funded by the student government. Pittman notes that “organizations are becoming increasingly active.” One expression of that: more and more campus events that present more and more choices for all students in their busy lives, not just a particular group of affiliates.

Choice-making is even baked into the program of Duke’s newest showplace, the West Union Building, which reopens this fall. Deciding where and what (not to mention when) to eat will become a complex undertaking. At different destinations within the dramatically renovated and expanded building, students will be able to veer among pub fare, an “authentic Indian menu,” a “confluence of different cuisines from all over East and Southeast Asia,” a selection of “hand-crafted, woodfired pizzas,” vegetarian and vegan dishes, offerings that celebrate “all the unique and regional flavors of the South,” and a quick-stop venue for “coffee, pastries, and nitrogen ice cream.”

MAKING QUIDDITCH REAL, making vegan routine—these are now typical pursuits on the campus spectrum of possibilities. Choosing to live a good chunk of life online is so reflexive as to hardly represent a choice. The choice-making comes down to just where to land online.

Through Duke’s Office of Undergraduate Education, I sent out an unscientific but, from anecdotal accounts, representative survey that produced more than a hundred responses from students. The largest percentage of respondents said they devote more than five hours of every Duke day online; not a single student marked “less than one hour.”

Much of that time has them steeped in social media, particularly Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. Forty percent choose to spend at least one to three hours every day watching videos on such streaming sites as Netflix, Hulu, or You- Tube. Asked if they’re signed up for daily news updates, they’re all over the media landscape: The New York Times (hugely popular), The Wall Street Journal, CNN, BBC, Tennis magazine (at least for one committed player), and theSkimm, a compilation that “gives you everything you need to start your day.”

I wanted to drill down on some of those online choices. Responses from a small group of students, all in my storytelling seminar, came back at interesting times—like 3:32 on a Monday morning. One said, “I find myself on the Web/Facebook/Snapchat most frequently while doing other things. For example, when I’m at the gym, while I’m resting, I’m constantly on Google or Facebook. In Harris Teeter [a supermarket close to campus], as I’m waiting in the checkout line, I’m doing the same. Same when waiting at doctors’ offices, or bored, or even relaxing for a ‘nap.’ I think that’s the biggest new phenomenon of our ‘digital’ generation: We relax or pass time not by being alone with our thoughts, but by multitasking with the Internet.”

Another student, similarly wandering back and forth along the spectrum of online choices, shared this: “On a typical day, I probably check Facebook about once every hour or whenever I get a notification, which can be quite frequent, depending on the day. For instance, my sorority uses Facebook to arrange events, and during recruitment, I had to constantly check my phone for updates.”

She added: “I typically check my Instagram and Snapchat feed about two or three times an hour, and send Snapchats three or four times a day.” She checks Yik Yak, a campus-gossip site, multiple times daily.

Are students, at any point, just acting as idle beings, with nothing going on? No such offswitch is apparent from data that Abhi Bathula, an energy engineer with the university’s Facilities Management Department, shares with me. Bathula put together a detailed “building-load profile” for a typical weekday and night on the West Campus Keohane Quad. The profile documents, for every half hour in the residence-hall complex, the power demands from essentially everything that’s plugged in—computers, gaming systems, dorm-room task lights.

The striking insight from that data is how little “spiking” there is. Whether you’re looking at early mornings, late nights, or what in Duke-speak would be the hours that drive work in the “real world,” there’s remarkable consistency. There’s never an appreciable powering down; students are always choosing to do something.

One choice that can drop in popularity—or fade into an unacknowledged necessity—is sleep. This spring, another Chronicle columnist, sophomore Carly Stern, reflected on the “mantra” that “between sleep, good grades, and a social life, college students must pick two and cut their losses on the third.” The “to-do list,” as she put it, doesn’t end, so it becomes difficult to justify adding anything—learning to meditate, reading for pleasure—that isn’t urgent. “It’s not a matter of being inefficient or dawdling during the day; we just have too many things on our plates. If sleeping more means doing less—whether that involves cutting back on extracurricular activities, dropping a job, or not going out—many, myself included, are unwilling to make the concession.” A smart choice, as it would seem outside the campus bubble, becomes a “concession” to be resisted.

Treating sleep casually is common on campus, I learn from Thomas Szigethy, associate dean of students and director of the Duke Student Wellness Center. To accomplish their agendas, students would like to see additional hours added to their days; they need to be involved, to be socially engaged. Sleep just gets in the way.

Students gauge success in terms of diligently getting their academic work done. Beyond that, “they have to experience everything Duke has to offer,” he tells me. “It’s difficult to say no to things, whether it’s the clubs or organizations they identify with, the community work they volunteer for, or the leadership positions they strive for. In general, when I run into students, I hear a laundry list of things they’re doing, want to do, or perceive as needing to do. And everything they want to do they want to do at the accelerated pace of 110 miles an hour.”

He offers an ironic image: As he finishes up stress-reduction workshops for students, he usually finds those students scampering out right as the session ends rather than lingering to chat. “The minute it’s over, they’re gone. There are other things that require their attention.” They can’t really choose just to chill. “If every single minute of every single day is filled up with some activity,” he wonders, “how do students know what they want, what they’re looking for? If they don’t award themselves some quiet time, the frenzy around their activities isn’t going to allow them to figure that out.”

I award myself some late-afternoon time in the Blomquist Garden, a Sarah P. Duke Gardens segment that extends (metaphorically and physically) from a Francis Bacon quote inscribed in a big circular medallion: “God Almighty first planted a garden, and indeed it is the purest of human pleasures.” Deep in the recesses of this garden of regional plants, one student couple is striking a quiet, hand-clasping pose on a bench. Quite unremarkable, but sweet and soothing. Then two students walk by in rapid succession, each involved less in the natural setting than in intense cell-phone conversations. How to think about them? Maybe they’re searching for quiet time in a secluded space, but really, just semi-searching: The one thing they can’t choose is to be detached from their obligations.

Then I step out of the gardens and notice, walking nonchalantly down Campus Drive, a student in a pink-and-white rabbit outfit. Off to a party, naturally.

I like the idea that this journey leads me not down a rabbit hole, but rather to a rabbit. These students may be seriously busy as they steer themselves through a maddening menu of choices. Yet for all their hopping about, they choose, now and again, to not take themselves too seriously.

  • As editor, Bliwise has overall responsibility for editorial direction and content and for representing the magazine to its various constituencies. He also teaches a seminar in magazine journalism through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.