On Homecoming: or, a Complicated Ode to My Alma Mater

By Michaela Dwyer

I’m reluctant to use an image to encapsulate my Duke homecoming experience this past weekend, but I’ll do it anyway (after all, what is “homecoming” if not a pastiche of collegiate symbols?). On Friday night, sitting in dress clothes awash in laptop light, I made a last-minute decision to attend President Brodhead’s famous homecoming dance, and I realized I hadn’t registered—for any part of homecoming weekend. I was suddenly immersed in a hyper-localized and mostly self-regarding panic. I was mad at myself that I assumed it’d be so easy to get in—that I could be so unintentional and nonchalant about my decision to opt into a weekend that is, for all intents and purposes, a pretty big deal in its neat little Duke context. I sat frozen in my ambivalence: would they throw me out if I arrived, unregistered? Would it not be totally ridiculous for them to do so? Why was I getting so worked up about something so comparably inconsequential to the messiness and thrumming life of the larger, greater “real world”?

The skim here may be that I’m a curmudgeon, forever skeptical of big, institution(-alized) university events like homecoming. I’ve never been one to outwardly profess an attachment to the supposed physical beauty of West Campus. As an undergrad (and still now), I’d sooner champion concerts and art openings over large-scale traditional happenings—from sports games to designated nights at downtown clubs—that continually draw huge quantities of Duke students. And I’ve always been reluctant to call Duke “home,” just as it’s been hard for me to give that title to any space I’ve transiently inhabited.

The arrival (and passing) of homecoming pushes me to ponder how much Duke is “home” for any of us, even for those who call it such. And what happens if we interchange “home” with “community”? The Chronicle is running a particularly good editorial series by recent graduates, all of whom are taking a “gap year” to seek out the “diverse ways Duke graduates can pursue and engage with the field of medicine outside the classroom.” The most recent column, written by my friend Jocelyn Streid, discusses the danger of dichotomizing “Duke” and the “real world.” She writes—and these lines keep running through my head—: “With the specter of adulthood on the horizon, we fall prey to decisions that jeopardize our integrity, our communities and our bodies because—well—we’re not in the ‘real world’ yet. It’s easy to call Duke unreal because college life looks like it lacks real responsibilities. But that’s a myth. As long as we are in a community, and exist in community, our actions matter. They matter because they affect others.”

Recently in Noah Pickus’s Discussions in Ethics course we looked at the Duke Community Standard, which states that “Duke University is a community of scholars and learners, committed to the principles of honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, and respect for others…As citizens of this community, students are expected to adhere to these fundamental values at all times, in both their academic and non-academic endeavors.” The impulse here is hugely communitarian: at Duke, we apparently share the pledge to act, both within and outside of academia, as an intentional community. We sign this Standard at various points throughout the “Duke Experience”: after convocation our first year, when registering for classes each semester, in conjunction with papers and exams.

Despite its attention to social responsibility, the Standard isn’t signed before a party, basketball game, or upon registration for homecoming (I arrived, late, and anxiously inquired as to whether admittance would honor an RSVP placed 30 minutes before the dance began. It would). It’s curious: homecoming sends the message that Duke inherently is, and will forever remain, a giant, shared enterprise, and it’s almost too easy to opt back into that vibe once you’ve “graduated” from it. That’s part of what I felt on Friday: rejoining the “Duke Community,” now as an alumna, felt like a surreally detached action from how I actually moved through Duke. My philosophy is communitarian in relation to the many networks I’m a part of; I think of my “Duke Experience” fractured into my commitment to communities in the arts, the Chronicle, the Baldwin Scholars, the Center for Documentary Studies, the Triangle at large. These, to me, feel like intentional communities in a way that my allegiance to Duke—in the big, loud, proud homecoming hoopla sense—does not, and probably never will.

But that ritualistic Duke hoopla is a vision, a space, that’s necessarily vague and incomplete. It treads a fine line between danger and benefit in its ability to transcend these distilled networks, these specialized stuffings of my—or anyone’s—time at Duke. Many of the most unique and powerful relationships I’ve formed and experiences I’ve had at Duke have emerged from between the cracks. Renewing that feeling of community was as easy as shimmying up to old friends also conveniently attending the homecoming dance on Friday. And maybe that between-the-cracks space is the grandiose, mystical Duke that we can all latch onto, the institutional outline that has the capacity for wildly different individual Duke experiences. It seems to me that what most bonds us as Duke students and graduates is the power to opt into and perform this universal, connective “Duke” that exists when we want it to—like on homecoming weekend. Maybe, and to my hoo-ha cynic’s chagrin, the ease with which we—I—can inhabit that is actually what’s making it easier than ever to make Duke and Durham into a definition of “home.”