Here we are again, maybe for the first time for some of you.


It hardly ever gets less overwhelming, the stress that comes with the start of school. From the first year to the third, the same social situations make me anxious and the same standards stress me out.


Yet, it feels more familiar now.


The way my nerves act up in a new classroom or my head tells me not to be awkward at a first party, it’s like coming home to a familiar friend, just not always in a good way.


There are feelings that I have, nerves and stress, which often feel all-consuming at the start of the year. Feelings that I’m willing to assume are not unique to me. I am willing to assume that if I were to ask those around me, many would express similar feelings, especially at the start of a new year.


However, while some stress may touch all Duke students, what I feel at the beginning of the year often feels rooted in my womanhood and the societal pressures that come along with it.

So, as the school year is now upon us and syllabi are being thrown our way, I think it is important to remind us women who have been here for a minute, and those who are just arriving, of the lessons that college makes easy to forget.

1.     Don’t let the men in your class dominate the conversation.

Because we are all here for school, to learn and to succeed academically, I think it is always an important reminder that your opinion is not only valid, but it is necessary.

Too often have I experienced and heard stories about classrooms that are dominated by male voices. They are voices that have been encouraged from a young age to be loud, to speak up, and to offer their opinion because it is one the world wants and needs to hear. It usually isn’t out of malice, but I have witnessed a confidence instilled in men that women have to build up in themselves and each other because the world does not always do it for us. We are frequently denied that confidence boost, so I hope this serves as a reminder to be confident in your opinion and to share your perspective because there are people all around you who will benefit from your willingness to speak up.

2.     Professors may attempt to undermine your academic prowess. Refuse them this power.

It’s an annoying reminder, but it’s an equally annoying feeling to feel as if you have something to prove as soon as you enter a classroom.

It’s the pressure of wanting to impress a distinguished professor on top of the pressure to surpass the expectations, or lack there of, placed on you as a woman. Women cannot ignore the stereotypes that circulate, particularly those pertaining to women in STEM. Therefore, it is incredibly important to remind yourself that you are at Duke for a reason and no single professor should be able to make you feel otherwise.

3.     Unachievable beauty standards are everywhere.

Just as much as they’re in the media, they’re on our campus too. They are standards that are set and withheld by the beautiful women featured in magazines, TV shows, and movies.

Yet, these women do not depict real women most of the time.

In fact, these photoshopped women who have the time and money to dedicate to their physical health are sometimes the furthest people from reality. Yet, they still remain the source for our definitions of beauty.

They are impossible standards to meet. They are standards that force women to place nearly all value on our outward appearances, which is not only unhealthy, but an inaccurate representation of what women add to the world.

Duke has a way of enforcing these standards through many different social situations.

People often view women, particularly Duke women, as those who should be both academically impressive and physically impressive. This physical impressiveness usually means that you must be thin, but not too thin. You should be curvy, but not too curvy. Your face should always look like you aren’t trying too hard, but you should definitely be trying. Think of it as wearing just enough make-up so it looks as if your face is naturally devoid of any imperfections. You should also definitely always do something with your hair. Heaven forbid you feel a little lazy and want to put it in a bun. Lastly, you should always dress to impress, but don’t look like you’re trying to impress or then the look wouldn’t work. Aim for cute-casual almost always and if you’re leaning more towards casual then it better be workout-casual.

If you can do all that then you can almost, sort of, not really meet the unachievable beauty standards here at Duke.

So, I think if anything, we must remember that we shouldn’t fixate on the unachievable, nor should we compare ourselves to the standards that others have unfairly placed upon us. It will only lead to our own unfounded disappointment and unhappiness.

4. These beauty standards are nearly impossible to reach for women of color.

It can’t go unsaid that these beauty standards, while essentially impossible to meet for all women, more often than not entirely exclude women of color.

It is so important to remember when starting the year that the body types that the world says are beautiful, the skin colors and the hairstyles, are limited options of beauty. Our society, including our Duke society, has a way of overlooking the variety of beauty that women have. As women starting a new year, it is important to not only remind other women of color of their inherent beauty, but also to remind yourself.

5.     Continue to be open to new people and new perspectives.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Be open. It sounds simple, but it isn’t always easy.

However, there are countless new people to meet, new people to learn from, and new ways to challenge yourself all around you. I can’t emphasize enough how easy it is to fall into routines, to feel comfortable surrounding yourself with people who look and think and feel similarly to you. Yet, when you push yourself outside of those routines, when you expand your social interactions beyond those who feel safe or comfortable, Duke can actually begin to challenge you as a person.

6. Always surround yourself with people who uplift you and who you trust.

To put it plainly, college is finally the time you get to be choosey. Choose the people who will be there for you and who will encourage you. Choose the people who make you better, and let go of the rest.

7. Remember to always put your safety first.

I reject the narrative that women should constantly be aware of the situations in which they are placing themselves. This notion regularly leads to victim blaming. However, I do believe it is always important to remind women that there is no shame in placing our safety first.

Whether it is walking alone on campus or attending a party, women should never feel ashamed to suggest alternative routes or additional safety measures. Your wellbeing should be your number one concern and you should absolutely take any precautions necessary in order to make yourself feel safe.

8. You have to handle your stress in a healthy way.

It’s going to start to pile up.

You’re going to think back to this time a few weeks from now and wish for the freedom from the first week of school because classes always get difficult, activities and events begin to happen in rapid succession, and college feels a little more like how people have always described it.

Stress is inevitable.

But, there are countless healthy ways to manage that stress. From physical activity (which, I admit, is not always my first solution) to napping or a trip to the Wellness Center, Duke does actually provide mediums to relieve the stress.

You are far from alone in this stress, and it is so important to presently acknowledge how many options there are to manage this stress.

Think about going to the Academic Resource Center and CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) when the stress becomes too difficult to manage. These resources are there for your use and can be, for some people, effective ways to manage any pressure or anxiety you are experiencing.

9. The concept of effortless perfection is ever-present, yet always false.

If you are new to campus and haven’t heard of the concept of effortless perfection, you will.

Soon enough you will be well versed in the effortless demeanors of everyone around you. From the person who sits next to you in lab, to the person dancing next to you at the party, to the person yelling next to you at the basketball game, they will all appear to have it all together. Their academic, social, and physical well-being will all seem to surpass yours.

Yet, the key word here is seem.

Perfection is not effortless nor is it a reality. Duke students manage to exude this perfection as well as project this perfection onto one another. We torture ourselves with the image of academic, social, and physical perfection that is not real. It is an image that forces us to dislike the imperfections that make us human and dismiss any real problems that others may be having around us.

We must remind ourselves not to compare ourselves to an image of perfection, especially when no such thing exists, because it reduces those around us to a false image and leads us to dislike the traits that make us who we are.

Kristina Smith