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Survey questionnaire to rank clarity of sense of purpose in life
Screenshot from a post-program survey questionnaire sent to all DukeEngage participants

Both before the summer and now, I was a bit taken aback that DukeEngage asked us these questions. They’re comically, uh, big. I get the point. DukeEngage wants to measure how much it helps change the way we think, the way we see ourselves, and our role in the world. After all, that’s the point of college. But it’s also too much pressure to answer on a Likert scale. I’m not totally sure how I answered it back in May, and I don’t remember how I filled it out a few days ago.

However, I don’t have a clear sense of purpose in life. I’m not lost. I’m just 21, and I think saying that I understand what gives my life meaning and purpose requires much more hutzpah than I have.

I know this comes off as a criticism, but I mean it constructively: asking Duke students these Really Big Questions undercuts our smaller, important bits of progress. This summer didn’t teach me about the meaning of life necessarily, but it showed me that I could potentially find an engaging career in journalism.

Even going into my senior year at Duke, I spend a lot of time thinking about the brochure. I think a lot of schools probably don’t look like them—with all the smiling faces, pretty outfits, and gorgeous grounds. Walk around Duke’s campus, and—my god—it actually holds up. Go to the Bryan Center plaza on any sunny day, and you’ll find a J. Crew magazine of smart, accomplished, happy kids. Or so it looks. But the reality isn’t so shiny. It’s not all doom and gloom either—just a mix. Some students are bummed out and stressed, worried about things like tests or things much more serious. But there is undoubtedly an expectation of happiness, and more broadly, of understanding where you’re going, what you’re doing—and who you are.

“Who you are” is how you get into Duke, particularly as an undergraduate. They talk about this idea of the “big spike”—some sellable characteristic that helps Duke create a well-rounded class to put on their pretty pamphlets (They’re quite stunning. I still have one in my childhood bedroom to this day).

And Duke, to its credit, doesn’t hold you to your 18-year-old-Monster-Energy-drink-fueled elevator pitch. But it does, within the flexibility of taking lots of types of classes, expect a kind of measurable Greatness. I don’t know anyone at Duke that says outwardly that they want to be a high school teacher. Or a nurse. Or even a mid-level manager. I do know a lot of people going into consulting to delay figuring out what they want to do. And I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. But I know that I am a normal person, not a series of application essays, or a series of survey responses.

This summer, I had a great job. An interesting, cool, exciting, intellectual job that I do think will influence what I want to do. I likely could not have pulled it off without DukeEngage, and I’m incredibly thankful for that. Maybe it was life-changing. I’ll find out along with the rest of you. But in the spring of my freshman year, I went home for spring break and never came back (I actually wrote about it as my first and likely only Chronicle piece). Life is so completely and deeply unpredictable.

So, ask me instead whether I strengthened relationships, professionally and personally. Ask me if this changed where I want to live in the next ten years. Ask me if I messed up and learned from it. My metric of success is not understanding the meaning of my life. It’s understanding myself right now, hopefully, to help me understand myself in the future.

So, my plea to DukeEngage, Duke in all, maybe colleges in general, and I guess life: give me room for error. Room to be confused. Room to screw up, get it wrong—and keep going. DukeEngage is welcome to stick me on a brochure, but don’t be so sure I stay on the same page.