Carpe Diem

By Valerie

It was all I could ever think about, the nasty culprit behind countless sleepless nights, a master puppeteer who toyed with my emotional strings, wearing me down till I went limp as a rag doll.

Childish. Immature. Melodramatic. Many derided my all-consuming obsession as such. But was it really? How could I stop worrying after the (outrageously) staggering amount of dollars and hours invested in standardised tests and college applications? How could I stop agonising after  the immaculate marketing apparatus of these institutions had utterly convinced me that the education they offered was what I wanted, nay, absolutely needed? How could I stop fretting when everyone appeared to take my admission as given and pulled no punches in asserting their confidence in my abilities?

Friday, March 27 2020, 0708 SGT.

After months of nerve-wracking anticipation (and an additional 8 minutes spent wallowing in the delusion that nothing was cast in stone till I relinquished my oblivion), I finally mustered the courage to open the portal. What ensued thereafter was an explosion of ecstasy that begs description.

Getting into Duke feels like a dream. But it has also been overwhelming. Once you start sporting the Duke cap, you are thrust onto a pedestal. You are showered with compliments that feel undeserved and misdirected and paint a shimmering persona you can only hope to live up to. You hear about the amazing feats achieved by students past and present and wonder if you have what it takes to fill the gigantic shoes they have left in their wake. For international students like myself, there is the daunting challenge of acclimating to college life without the comfort of the familiar; of making new friends without any common experiences to leverage as a starting point; of allowing our identities to be shaped and reshaped by a foreign culture without losing ourselves in the process.

The pandemic has hardly made things any easier. In the face of rapidly emerging and wildly circulating variants, travel restrictions that stretch indefinitely and familial pressures borne out of safety concerns, this heavenly dream constantly threatens to devolve into a hellish nightmare. As if it were not already challenging enough to adapt and thrive in Duke, study and living arrangements in the coming semester remain fraught with uncertainty. How am I going to get to campus safely without making my family worry? If I can’t, will online learning still be an option? How am I going to make friends remotely and attend live classes in a distant time zone? Whenever I get a taste of campus life through Instagram stories and virtual events, anticipation swells within me like a bubble, only to burst at the thought of missing out on all the fun in fall.

But hearing my own struggles with imposter syndrome, identity, uncertainty and loneliness echoed by other students during Duke Real Talk sessions has provided a good measure of solace and solidarity. Their stories have also driven home the reality that these sentiments will ebb and flow as I transition through different phases of college life, each with its own flavours of distress. I recall how desperately my younger self longed for the liberation that college life seemed to promise. I relive the euphoria that embraced me as I read that coveted acceptance letter, then bemoan how quickly it faded into the shadows of new concerns. There is no ailment more debilitating than chronic dissatisfaction– and I am starting to realise that the most powerful remedy comes from within.

Only I have the power to prevent myself from being swept up by the blustering whirlwind of ceaseless yearning and desire by remaining firmly grounded in the present moment. Adopting this deceptively simple mindset has been difficult, but it has certainly worked wonders. Who knew that taking morning strolls in the park, with the sweet scent of dewy grass still lingering heavily in the air, could dramatically uplift my mood for the rest of the day? Sometimes, I even stop by the beach to bury secret Korean messages in the sand and leave wondering if anyone will discover them before they are erased by the lapping waves. Stimulated by a surge of rekindled musical passion and the addictive satisfaction of mastering a challenging song, I have started playing the piano again and developed a new obsession with the ukulele (after numb fingertips and painful calluses suspended my love affair with the guitar). Every happy memory I make now is carefully preserved in daily gratitude stories on Instagram that remind me to savour all the little pleasures in my life before they slip away without warning.

As we welcome the newest members of the Class of 2025, getting into Duke a year ago still feels like a dream– and I want to keep it that way, to always remember how immensely blessed I am to be pursuing my aspirations in a supportive, collaborative and explorative environment, and be content with all that I already have.