Just Enough Common Ground

I think that many students walk onto Duke’s campus looking to find those who are similar to them, those who share similar experiences, victories and hardships. Students look to find those who they can relate to, who they can see somewhat of themselves in. Without those people and without that similarity, Duke is a much lonelier place than we would like to acknowledge.  

    It isn’t so much that you’re ever without people, because, if we’re being honest, Duke is a place where people always surround you. Yet, while you are constantly around high achieving people, there is no guarantee that people who have experiences similar to your own will ever surround you.

I mean the experiences that you didn’t ask for. The experiences you’ve lived through, because of the traits that you were born with or have begun to understand along the way. I mean experiences with race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and gender identity and gender expression. I mean experiences with ability and disability, with religion and nationality. I’m talking about the experiences, the privileges, and the obstacles that you have had to face that make you who you are today.

We all have these identities.

    It’s difficult to meet people who share experiences similar to your own. It’s difficult because on a college campus, on Duke’s campus, identity conversations are not what people prioritize, not when there is a meeting to be at and a paper to write. It is even more difficult to have conversations on campus about these different identity markers and what make them difficult and beautiful and real. It is even more rare to engage in conversations about these identity markers with those who identify differently than you.

    It is this difficulty, this tangible frustration due to a lack of conversation, a lack of understanding, and a lack of empathy that makes the Common Ground retreat so incredibly important to me.

It is a retreat that made me feel uncomfortable with the identities that I had struggled with for so long, and then it made me feel comfortable embracing those same identities with people who shared them. It is a retreat that helped me see myself. Maybe more importantly, it is a retreat that helped me see others.

    Common Ground is a five-day identity retreat that serves, at least for me, as a reminder of privilege and power and of continued discrimination and oppression. It is a retreat with conversations unlike any other that I’ve been privy to on this campus.

    Common Ground is a reminder that people of all different identities exist on our campus. It is a reminder that day-to-day life is still difficult for many of our peers, much more difficult simply because of the identities that they do not control. Common Ground is a reminder that there is value in talking about the identity factors that make up who we are.


    Yet, more than anything, Common Ground is a constant reminder that we can learn so much from each other if we would just take the time to do so.

    Common Ground has changed a great deal, even in just the three retreats that I’ve been on. It is slowly but surely evolving, learning each retreat the balance between giving people the space to share their stories, while also offering room to learn about the identities of others. Yet, if there is one thing that I’m sure has remained the same throughout the years, it is the desire to engage openly with these topics.

    One does not walk into Common Ground without some desire to explore the identities of themself and others.

    So, I want to talk about why I think Common Ground, despite its imperfections, is such an essential tool for creating much needed space. It is a retreat that allows for discussion off campus, and offers people the autonomy to bring these discussions back to campus.

    Common Ground is unique in its ability to gather an incredibly diverse group of people together. This is a group of people who have probably never met, and who, even if they have met, rarely talk to one another about their identities. Common Ground starts the conversation.

    There are a wide range of activities to make the topics somewhat more real, but the point is that room is left for participants of the retreat to speak to one another, to speak with one another.

    I wish I could say for certain why this conversation, why this mere back and forth, is so important. Maybe it’s because for many in the room, after years of dealing with their identities in a society that doesn’t listen, people are finally being heard.

    Where else are you ever going to feel as heard and understood than in a room of people who have chosen to engage with these topics, who have chosen to see you? Maybe it’s the listening that is so novel. Maybe it’s that, for a moment, for this retreat, it feels like people actually care to learn about your identity.  

    I truly believe that what makes this experience so jarring is that groups of people finally want to know what they are personally doing to make life more difficult for those around them. And that is a beautiful and valuable thing in our world.

    Common Ground is a give, just as much as it is a take.

    It’s about giving people the room to embrace their own identities, to feel pride and happiness. It’s about giving people the opportunity to find community, to find people who share experiences similar to their own, which is rare to come across at Duke.

    I’d like to think the retreat is about finding some sort of common ground among all of us. However, I don’t know if anything really ties us all together. I don’t know if we’re bound by anything other than the fact that we’re all people, all people dealing with the privileges and obstacles that accompany our various identities. I don’t know if our commonality is anything more than our struggle to learn and accept and love who we are for what we have been given. I don’t know if it is any more than our daily choice to learn how to navigate this crazy, difficult, demanding world together.

    But, maybe that’s just enough common ground.




Kristina Smith