“There are benefits to being a stranger, because you see things differently from people who have been in that space for a while. The more time you spend in that space, the less you see things from [an] outside [perspective].”
– Duke President Vincent Price
This past week, Team Kenan’s ongoing Couch program partnered with Me Too Monologues, an annual performance of Duke students’ “intimate, personal experiences and explore narratives [on the topic of identity,] that would otherwise be silenced on campus.” Team Kenan set up the Couch on the BC Plaza to engage in dialogue with more than 100 Duke students, faculty and staff, over three days about their experiences with and thoughts on individuality and group identity within Duke’s campus culture; how tensions between curation of identity and authenticity, active and passive identity markers, and cohesion and diversity shape our community.
While many students spoke about a pervasive sense of pressure to keep their heads down and blend in, whether it stems from cultural background… “It would be easier to not be a person of color at Duke. But I’m not sure I would change it, if I could,” or the impact of ‘Effortless Perfection’: “I don’t talk about my shit to other people because Duke is stressful enough…”
Although 92% percent of the students who took part in the Couch conversations said that they had altered their personality, at some point during their time at Duke, in order to fit in, some lamented how Duke undergraduates “define themselves mostly by what they’re planning on majoring in, or the groups they’re involved with” and how easy it is to reduce their peers to broad generalizations “I don’t want to reduce people to their organization or Greek affiliation, but it’s low-hanging fruit of what to talk about,” all of which reduce our ability to empathize with others and detrimentally impact our decision making. Two-thirds of students we asked, said they felt they had no control over how others perceive them.
Conversations included how communities and environments affect us in ways that we don’t recognize until we’ve left them, “I had always thought of myself as Indian and not Indian-American, until I came here and went abroad,” while another, reflecting on her new viewpoint on adulthood, worried, “I feel like I’m turning into my mother.”
After some time spent deep in conversation on the Couch with Team Kenan, one student, echoing President Price, affirmed that the difficulty balancing of perspectives is vital to navigating life, “I think to live a full and meaningful life, you need [to affirm your identity and fit in with others]… If you don’t do either well, college is the best place to practice both.”