Meagan Bode. Jon Gardiner
They're climbing--leaping, really--out of overpacked minivans and weighed-down SUVs, eighteen years old and half excited, half scared to death, looking up at the red brick East Campus dormitories, around at their new classmates, and back at their parents with extraordinarily wide eyes.
As a First-Year Advisory Counselor Board member, I'm supposed to befriend these kids, act as their mentor, and help move microwaves, fridges, and suitcases out of cars and into dorm rooms. For the moment, though, all I can do is stop and stare and remember. Two years ago, that was me, I think, my mind slipping easily over the months and memories, recalling so many experiences and life lessons. I look carefully at their faces, doubting that I ever looked so young, wondering how two years can feel like two minutes and a lifetime all at once.
I remember all too clearly standing beside my car and my parents, pasting a smile onto my face, and panicking internally. People kept introducing themselves as FACs and RAs and GAs and the acronyms became too much and I was overwhelmed with new information: Use your DukeCard to get in and out of dorms and buildings, to buy food at the East Campus Marketplace (dinner is from 5:00 to 8:00, all you can eat), to print documents, to purchase textbooks. Remember your Student ID number, UniqueID, NetID, room number, dorm names, e-mail password.
I tried to listen, desperately, but how could I, when the whole time I was thinking, In seven hours, I will say goodbye to my parents for three months. I'm not even sure how to do my own laundry. I am all alone on this campus with 1,600 random kids, and I know only one girl from my high school. I have no friends because they are 500 miles away, and I will never be able to find people here like the ones I found at home. Don't forget that the buses run every fifteen minutes, except on weekends when the Centrals run every half hour, and those take twenty minutes even to get to West. How do you concern yourself with a bus schedule when your entire life is changing?
And yet, now, there are so many things I find myself wanting to tell these freshmen, thinking that somehow my words and memories might make it easier. Part of me wants to pull aside the ones who look especially scared and explain that, in six days, they will be so busy with new friends and activities that they will forget to call home. Or that, in a few weeks, they will be sitting in a desk chair in a cramped dorm room, talking for hours with another person until, all of a sudden, they realize that it is somehow four in the morning and class begins at ten. I wish I could explain how the most unlikely people can become close friends and how the best nights will probably be the ones that are too common, too regular, to really remember.
I think back to my own freshman year, trying to recall the lessons that were most valuable to me. Learning how to balance my time was crucial. There are only so many hours in a day: $40,000 worth should be devoted to studying. When parents are suddenly absent, it's fairly tempting to emphasize fun above work. I figured out pretty quickly that blowing everything off for a good party didn't mean that the responsibility disappeared, only that I'd left it for later, when I had significantly less time and higher stress levels and a desperate need for sleep.
Duke-specific lessons were important, as well. Not losing the DukeCard, our key to life on campus, was essential. Understanding the difference between Food and Flex and prepaid meals proved useful. (Food allows you to order off campus or to eat on West, Flex lets you make purchases from the Duke Stores, and prepaid meals include breakfast and dinner at the Marketplace.) And tenting in Krzyzewskiville taught me the importance of perseverance, the ability to function on two hours of sleep, and the importance of a zero-degree sleeping bag.
I learned how to do things that scared me: how to sit down at a table where I knew absolutely no one, how to handle being sick when Mom wasn't there with chicken soup, how to cry in front of new friends and hope that they would understand this feeling of homesickness. How to trust when I had nothing to go on but faith.
But even as I think these things--as I recall staying up way too late, getting sick from playing outside during a hurricane, squeezing ten kids on my best friend's bunk bed for movie night, trying to rig a bucket filled with water to drench our RA--I know that a million words and all the time in the world wouldn't let me communicate what it is to be a freshman, or how to best tackle the year.
There is just no way to capture sitting out in the hallway at 1:00 a.m. with eight new friends who somehow feel like family. There is no way to explain the look on my mother's face when her baby girl said she missed home--and meant Duke. They will learn, as I did, through experience, not advice.
But someone should make sure they understand the bus schedule.