My initial view of South Africa is a place of contrariety. From imposing mountains to the beaches and million dollar homes perched above slums, this contrast permeates almost every aspect of life in South Africa. The most shocking and predominate of these contrasts was the wealth divide. The presence of luxury sports cars and mansions seemed to emphasize the opposing lack of privilege in the country. This lead me to think critically about how much privilege has played a role in my own life, the role it played in getting me to Duke.
Because I was fortunate enough to grow up in an affluent beach town, poverty has mostly been a theoretical concept I was largely insulated from. Thus, this first week has been one of my first direct experiences and interactions with poverty. As such, the poverty and juxtaposition with wealth has largely dominated my early impressions of South Africa
It would be amiss of me to ignore the fact that the opportunity to witness this contrast in South Africa is a result of my being on this program, which in-turn is a direct result of my privileged position as a Duke student. Viewing my place as at Duke student as a product of my privilege rather than hard work alone is not a new concept to me but rather an idea I have contended with all year.
I, like many students entering Duke, held the belief that I was accepted to a top 10 college solely because of my sacrifices, hard work and talent. It was difficult to recognize and accept the role my privilege played in getting me to there, a product of the country I was a citizen of, the schools I attended, and the means I was born to. It was particularly difficult to recognize the magnitude of this advantage during high school as I was in a community where almost everyone had comparable privilege, so this “head start” seemed like the position everyone was starting at.
Entering Duke, and for the first time being in classes with students who were not born into the same set of privileges helped me to recognize the role of privilege in my life. However, it was my first week in South Africa which allowed me to recognize that nearly every individual at Duke got there because of a degree of privilege. I distinctly remember walking through Soweto and realizing that it was virtually impossible for even the most deserving and talented individual from this area to make it into Duke. Unfortunately, how could you expect even the most driven individual at a poorly resourced school in the township to compete with applicants who have largely attended well resourced American schools. Beyond the question of academic preparedness in having the opportunity to attend a college like Duke is the financial barriers to enrolling. Because Duke is committed to meeting all financial need to US students, even the most underprivileged students by American standards have the opportunity to attend Duke for free, a privilege not available to the rest of the world. Thus, even the most qualified Duke applicant from a township like Soweto likely could not attend Duke because the cost of tuition for a year may be more than their family makes in a decade.
I think the notion that being at Duke is the result of privilege is an incredibly difficult concept for Duke students to grapple with. Because those at Duke tend to be some of the hardest working students in the world, it is so difficult to accept that their hard work alone isn’t the reason they are at Duke because accepting that idea almost seems to undermine all their effort. Ultimately, my first impression of South Africa pushed me to reflect on and contend with the role of privilege in my own life and the benefits I have received as a result.