I’m in the 1 in the wayyyy back, near Lilly Library.

The full story behind my 5 years in college

Where do I begin?

It’s been a wild ride.

And it’s kind of a long story. One of excitement. Hope. Despair. Loneliness. Friendship. A search for meaning. Happiness. Purpose. And love.

But here goes nothing.

My time here goes back to April 2013: when I was first accepted into Duke and attended Blue Devil Days.

The moment of my acceptance was probably one of the highest points in my life. I watched with bated breath as the acceptance letter loaded onto my dad’s iPhone screen. When I saw the “Congratulations!” I screamed from sheer excitement. Tiffy, sitting two seats away from me, shouted for me to “Shut up!” and pass the phone. I showed them, and they screamed, too. It felt like years of late nights spent studying for AP exams and tests and quizzes and all had finally paid off.

I was going to the school of my dreams. I could scarcely believe my luck — to be accepted into one of the top universities in the country! It seemed too good to be true.

Ever since I was about 6 or 7, I’d dreamt of going to Duke. We’d visited the gardens so often in those days, and I saw the chapel as an iconic part of my childhood.

I was crazy-active on the Facebook page. Eager to leave my high school, I spent hours browsing different threads on the Class of 2017 page. I shared my favorite artists, my favorite books… wrote up a profile to find a roomie through the Facebook page. And before I knew it, I was talking to an incredible girl who’d be my roommate for the next two years.

We Skyped and shared our habits. Our hopes and dreams. Our love of KPop and hot men. You know — your typical high-school Asian girl things.

I joined the Crazy Ladies page, created after this one thread on Facebook blew up. I think it started with an innocuous post about the appropriate attire for the dance at Nasher during Orientation Week (O-Week). And it escalated into a thread marveling over the various hotties in Marvel movies, with a joke or two about wearing birthday suits to the art museum.

The Duke Crazy Ladies

I guess I was so excited to graduate from high school, I didn’t appreciate the time I had remaining with my friends who were juniors at the time. I was itching to get out of there, despite having settled into stronger social groups and forging better connections with people in all aspects of my high school life. From playing on the Ultimate Frisbee team to suffering through cross country to playing chamber music to playing in regional orchestras — I had a community of friends who I knew I could count on for advice and for good times.

It’s funny how sometimes you realize the value of what you had only once you’ve lost it.

Blue Devil Days was a whir of excitement. I remember wandering throughout campus, feeling overwhelmed by all the sights, sounds, and smells. There were so many people wearing lanyards and Class of 2017 bags, chatting animatedly about the things they loved, the schools they’d gotten into, and the classes they wanted to take.

I remember chatting with a girl in the Au Bon Pain (ABP) sandwich-ordering lane. She was so friendly and nice. She’d tell me things about Duke and ask me questions about myself.

Riding the bus to and from East and West campus was nice, too. People talked to each other and tried to get to know each other as best as they could within the five to ten minutes they shared on public transit.

It seemed like such a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. You could feel the excitement in the air.

I remember one of my friends telling me how he’d gotten in touch with one of the astrophysics professors, who was taking his class on a stargazing trip in the middle of the Duke forest.

It was a brisk and windy evening. The grass in the field was almost up to our knees, and I remember feeling how scratchy it felt against my bare legs. Students piled out of the van and set up these gigantic telescopes. We struggled to pinpoint different planets and stars as the clouds rolled by overhead. What captured my attention most, though, was the moon.

Shot by putting my iPhone 3 camera up against the lens of the telescope

It was breathtaking. You could see the craters and ridges on the moon’s surface in stark clarity.

I saw a mini Saturn and its rings in the distance, delighted over the glowing red speck that was Mars, and squinted past the clouds to find Venus.

It was a magical night. And it filled my heart with so much joy, so much anticipation for the years ahead.

My earliest experiences on campus were through working at a neuroscience lab and volunteering in this science summer program called Innoworks. I was a camp counselor, who basically fulfilled the role of babysitter and teacher’s assistant in different capacities. Middle and high school students from Durham came by to participate in the summer camp.

During this time, I was assigned temporary housing in Edens. Back then, Edens was almost inseparable from the wilderness. There were worms and bugs in the bathrooms, and the beds were tiny. Mine was lofted to increase the amount of room we had to store things.

My temporary room in Edens

I remember the first Duke students I interacted with. They were members of Duke’s Asian sorority and fraternity: the AKDPhis and Lambdas, respectively. I was wowed by the AKDPhis. They seemed so sparkly and feminine. And I wondered if that was how all Asian girls at Duke were.

They invited me out with them a couple of times. At the end of the program, I was invited into the apartment of one of the Lambdas. There was hookah, beer pong, and a lot of alcohol. I was overwhelmed by all the drinking and loud music and fashionable people. And I had a severe case of social anxiety at the time. It was my first college party, and I hadn’t been to any parties in high school… so the entire scene was foreign to me.

I remember thinking, Wow, this is gonna take some getting used to.

The day I moved into Aycock (now called East Residence Hall), I happened to bump into my roommate on my way to the Housing office. We embraced and chatted excitedly about settling in and meeting everyone. I also bumped into one of my best friends, who my roomie introduced me to. She seemed a little shy but very nice, and I didn’t realize then how big of a role she’d play in my life in the years to come.

Those first few days were a blur of hi-what’s-your-names and dreary info sessions and social gatherings that made me feel low-key terrified of people.

Everyone seemed so smart and capable and accomplished.

It made me wonder why Duke had chosen me. It made me question if it was only because my dad worked here that they’d picked me over another applicant.

For days, I remember being holed up in my room, scared to even say hi to people who I passed by in the hallways.

And on weekends, when people would dress up and drink and go to Shooters, I stayed in. I vidchatted old friends and cried from homesickness.

I joined the Club Ultimate team, and sometimes we’d travel away. And even then, I didn’t feel like I belonged, seeing as they drank and smoked and partied so much. And I hadn’t grown accustomed to that just yet.

Club Ultimate

I felt like I didn’t really form close friendships with people until a lot later. And maybe it was unrealistic for me to find a best friend instantly upon arriving to campus, but I felt stranded. Alone. With no social network to depend upon.

Sometime around October or November, though, my roommate added me to a groupchat full of people who didn’t go out as much on the weekends. We all decided to go to events together.. be it Marketplace dinner, Midnight Breakfast, or other things.

I remember chilling in my guy friends’ room. We’d all just sit around talking and playing card games. Or do random shit in the common room, like taking the fillings out of Oreos and replacing them with hummus as traps for drunk people coming back to the dorm post-Shooters.

The freshman year crew

The classes I took that first semester were two related to the Focus program (Knowledge in the Service of Society, which my roomie had encouraged me to apply to, although the one about the power of words seemed more appealing to me at first). And then there were Korean and Writing 101.

One of my Focus classes was on Death and Dying. It had a lot to do with how to manage grief and evaluate life while knowing that death was inevitable someday. We read books about it and analyzed the death rituals across different religions. And learning about death really put life into perspective.

The other Focus class was on leadership and civic engagement. In this class, we were encouraged to identify a problem on campus. And then we’d get divided into project teams to work to solve these problems. Student organizations like Student U and Peer for You and Duke Conversations (which I believe is still going on today) were birthed from this class. We also examined what it meant to live a life according to our moral compass, leading a life laden with meaning and driven by our value system.

I remember sleeping through my Korean 101 classes at 8:30 in the morning. I loved the teacher — the way she’d light up and all. Her enthusiasm was infectious. But unfortunately, as the messed-up-sleep-schedule-freshman I was, I wasn’t able to stay awake for much of her class.

But I did appreciate having Grace’s Cafe in Trent Hall right after class. I’d often get the lychee slushie with boba. It was delicious. And sometimes I’d stop by the hot bar to grab some classic Asian faves, like tomatoes and eggs (番茄炒蛋) or eggplants with soy sauce paste (醬油膏+茄子). It was the closest we had to authentic Asian cuisine on campus, and with this option, I looked down on the Panda Express by the Bryan Center (BC).

Writing 101 was a joke (no offense). We wrote radio scripts and listened to nonsensical sound poetry. Our instructor was this kind of cool hippie guy with tattoos and a degree in something exotic, like ethnomusicography.

I remember studying in ABP in BC for most of my freshman year. People would stop by and chat with me, welcome breaks from my work. (I guess over time, that’s how I transitioned from being an INFP in the Myers-Briggs world to an ENFP.)

I remember, too, being curious about Christianity. Most of my friends were (and still are) Christians, so I wondered about what it was that gave them so much faith through their lives.

I joined Duke InterVarsity (known as IV, not known then as AIV, or Asian InterVarsity) and had the loveliest small group. I appreciated the people in my small group, particularly my small group leaders. To this day, I’ve formed a lasting friendship with my small group leader from then, and I’m hoping she’ll be a lifelong friend of mine’s.

I guess IV was the closest thing I had to a community. But the group disbanded as we transitioned into sophomore year.

I rushed Round Table that spring, hoping that I’d formed solid enough connections with a few of the members. But to no avail. It hurt to be rejected from a Selective Living Group (SLG), like I had to formally rush and apply to be someone’s friend. And in the end, I was passed up for other people, I suppose.

The friend group I’d joined thanks to my roommate then split up into different blocks. I was excluded from the blocks set up because they’d viewed my rushing as an act of abandonment, I guess. So I wound up being separated from the rest of them.

But I did manage to get closer to some of them through Psych 101. One of my friends played Pokemon through an emulator on her phone throughout class. The rest of us just saved seats for each other and laughed along with our professor, as she cracked jokes and went over dry Psych-related slides. It seemed like a rehashed version of AP Psych for me, so I didn’t find it difficult.

I took Ethics in an Unjust World that semester. The best class I’ve taken at Duke. We examined different perspectives on poverty, got a general overview of the different types of ethics there were, and were encouraged to participate in the Durham community more. I participated in a meeting about food deserts and went to Urban Ministries to eat with an ex-convict. Definitely some of the most memorable moments of my freshman year.

I took a seminar called Beyond Reason: Empathy and Identity. I remember reading tons of research studies and watching TED talks in class. It opened my mind to new, controversial topics. I learned about intersex people (people who don’t have a definite sex at birth) and eugenics. And the different stages of identity formation. And more about what it meant to be a millennial. It was all fascinating stuff, and it fulfilled my Natural Sciences (NS) and Research (R) requirements.

I took Education 101 and loved it. Not only was it an easy class, it was also immensely fascinating. Through this introductory course, I learned about the many problems present within the education system today.

In the spring, I remember going on a Civil Rights bus tour. It was called our “ReFocus” trip, and on it, I remember going to all these different sites — the Southern Law Poverty Center, major sites of civil disobedience in Alabama and Mississippi, and so much more.

With Focus buds

There was this one simulation where you went through situations similar to what slaves experienced throughout their lives. The kind of verbal and physical abuse they endured. The cramped, smelly nooks they were shoved into when they boarded ships. All of that. I still remember how dehumanizing it must’ve felt to endure that kind of pain and torment.

The summer after freshman year, I didn’t jump onto the whole gotta-do-something-amazing-over-the-summer bus. Instead, I went back to Taiwan to visit relatives. I volunteered at a local Chinese school sponsored summer camp again. And besides that, I used the time to relax and reflect on my freshman year. It was nice to spend more time with my family before launching into the next school year.

The following semester would be one of my hardest yet at Duke. I took Neuro 101, Chinese 435, Stats 101, Video for Social Change, violin lessons, and orchestra.

Neuro 101 was a nightmare. The material was fascinating, but the course was structured in a way that seemed designed to make you fail. It was open book groupwork for tests back then, but questions were still tricky enough to make it difficult.

Chinese 435 was tough, too. It was taught in Simplified Chinese, which meant I had to painstakingly look up individual characters in Traditional Chinese to try to keep up. We analyzed Chinese short stories, and it was a difficult time, for sure.

Stats 101 was taught by one of the most incompetent teachers I’ve come across in all my years of schooling. He was unusually salty to his students, rarely answered questions, and couldn’t explain statistical concepts in an understandable way.

Video for Social Change was fun. I learned how to edit videos, conduct interviews, and support causes advocating for a living wage. I learned a lot about working class America, which I hadn’t really thought much about prior to taking the course.

I took violin lessons with another instructor who was also awful at teaching. He often talked my ear off and didn’t let me play for him until the last ten minutes of class. I learned close to nothing from him.

And joining Duke Symphony Orchestra was demoralizing and isolating. There was little to no sense of community at the time, and the 45-minute commute back and forth to 2-hour-long rehearsals added up over time.

With my friend groups all divided among different dorms and seeing how everyone had separated into cliques within cliques, I had never felt so friendless and lonely in my life.

I tried to join TASA. The exec partied really hard. Like almost-got-arrested hard. So I didn’t feel like I belonged there.

I tried to join an upperclassmen small group. But then some of the requests about trying to “bring 3 people” to the next event made me feel like it was inauthentic. Like I was seen as another project, another number to recruit and convert to Christianity as opposed to a person.

And then I remembered seeing a bunch of people posting about getting into APO in the spring before. Desperate, I started attending fall rush events. I remember stepping foot in the Craven A common room early in my sophomore year, there to help with a residential staff appreciation event. The people I met there were so friendly and nice, I kept APO on my radar for the following semester.

I joined house council in hopes of finding a community among my dorm, like I had in my freshman dorm. But it didn’t work. People were already part of different established groups. And it was awfully hard to try to make a community out of “independents.” Because outside of SLG’s and Greek Life, everyone else was sorted randomly into independent housing. Which most certainly did not do wonders to help form residential communities.

So that semester was miserable. I had multiple breakdowns. I remember sitting on the carpet of my dorm room floor, hugging a friend as I sobbed into her shoulder. Not the cutesy-actress-crying-beautifully type of sobs but the entire-body-racked-with-pain-and-snot-flying-everywhere sobs. It was bad. (And that’s an understatement)

I tried writing for the Chronicle and HerCampus. I participated in a very disorganized service-learning student group. I played some intramural Frisbee. I tutored kids through America Reads, America Counts. And continued to work for the neuroscience lab. But somehow, I still felt unfulfilled.

I just remembered going home on breaks and dreading my return to school. I’d literally grow nauseous and sick at the very thought of going back to campus. It seemed like a toxic atmosphere, full of competition and social comparison and elitism.

When spring rolled around, I rushed APO. I attended most of their rush events, from open house to Broomball to game night to movie night. I got to know most of the brothers, and (according to insider information) I was a much-desired little. I didn’t rush with friends like most others had, but I felt like I’d formed stronger connections with the brothers than I had most other people at Duke.

Restaurant Week with APO brothers

It was, without a doubt, the best decision of my Duke career.

That semester, I’d also gotten closer to my guy friends from freshman year. I’d often hang out in their dorm, and we’d talk about random shit. Or just chill. It was nice being able to hang out in informal contexts. Their door was always open, and we’d hit up Pitchforks or Enzo’s late at night. I was still friends with my freshman-year friends, but I did grow a little more distant as I got more involved with APO.

I took American Dreams, American Realities, Korean 102, Adolescent Psychology, and the Pubpol intro course that semester.

ADAR was amazing. I learned so much about American history and the ways in which different myths have played out in our history time and time again.

I took Korean 102 because I ran into my Korean professor at an event in BC, and she asked me sweetly if I was planning on taking more Korean. I’d already finished my language requirement (Chinese 435 D:), so I said I would take her class anyway. (Regrets. It was hard.)

Adolescence was basically about sex ed and puberty. It explained why teens are so awkward and hormonal and… yeah. It was like high school health class on steroids.

The Pubpol intro course was fascinating. It had an intro to game theory and econ and other things that I found pretty interesting. It was set up in a kinda dry way, but I personally enjoyed the class. Plus, one of my guy friends was a TA in the class, so he definitely helped me through it.

But yeah, spring of sophomore year was much better for me socially. I got to meet a lot more people in my pledge class (Go Hallabeabis!).

The following summer was exciting. I went to Qingyuan, China through DukeEngage. I was a sophomore. I went with two junior guys.

I felt musically incompetent. I questioned why I wanted to be a teacher. And then I learned more about myself than I had ever done before.

I saw how privileged I was. And how I still am. And how all the stereotypes against China that I’d learned from American and Taiwanese media alike were wrong.

I felt lonely there, but I realized, too, that I could form meaningful relationships with people regardless of where I went. Be it with the students, the teachers, or my homestay parents… I’d be okay.

I called home most nights. I’d talk to my dad and sibling. I’d cry because I felt left out of a lot of the activities, always feeling like I was overlooked for my competence or taken for granted. Or like I was less-than simply because I was a woman.

But that aside, we did have some really great times. We traveled lots and got to see some of the major cities in China.

In Beijing by the Forbidden Palace

And not too long after that trip, I went to Leadershape, a leadership conference in Beaufort, NC.

There, I met some of the most genuine people I’ve come to know at Duke. People I wouldn’t have met otherwise. There, we shared our visions and dreams of a better future. We bonded over leadership building activities and deep conversations.

To this day, Leadershape is probably my favorite Duke-sponsored program, besides the Focus program.

Our last day

The fall of my junior year was when everything started going south. I enrolled in 5 credits again: four classes plus a Bass Connections project. I fell in love.

And then, too quickly, everything spiraled out of control.

Everything happened so fast.

That fall, I met someone new in APO.

I decided to live in section with one of the brothers I’d met, and she was such a sweet roommate. I remember the day I told her I’d started having feelings for someone in APO. She was surprised beyond belief. I remember she’d literally dropped her jaw in response to what I told her.

(The thing is, when I have a crush on someone, everyone knows. I can’t stop talking about them.)

But he was kind. Generous. Caring. Thoughtful.

And I initiated a relationship before we’d really gotten a chance to get to know each other.

It lasted for about a month. A month full of a lot of fantastic memories.

But as the semester progressed, due dates and deadlines loomed ahead. I was exhausted from all the work I was doing. I wouldn’t start on homework until around 1 AM, and I’d wake up around 5 AM the following morning to finish my schoolwork.

My grades were high, but my health was destroyed.

I turned suicidal. Ended up in the psych ward and then the hospital.

He came by to visit me every day. Every shift of every day — including the one from 7 to 9 AM. And I appreciated his company so much, knowing he’d sacrificed his academics to come see me. Because of me, he skipped an exam in multi and wound up having to retake the course the following semester.

I guess that played a huge part in why I became so into him.

But it didn’t work out.

And I couldn’t finish my classes.

I wound up deciding to take a medical leave.

I was so overwhelmed and burnt out. And I needed space from him after our brief relationship ended so disastrously.

I remember so many sleepless nights, due to nightmares or bouts of overthinking. I couldn’t function normally — I remember vividly going to WaDuke with two of my friends and later vomiting in the lobby because my stomach couldn’t take the amount of food I had.

I remember going to the race forum — this had been just after the noose incident — and speaking up about race-related problems and mental health issues on campus. And by speaking up, I mostly mean crying. Based on my performance that time of year, I’d say I could’ve gotten a Program II major in Public Crying.

But things started happening. They hired a new CAPS counselor. They changed their hiring practices.

And then I decided to leave the country, fly off to Taiwan, and do more soul-searching on my own there.

In Taiwan, I felt lonely again. I had no friends. I had family, but that was about it. No peers to talk to. No deep conversations. Nada.

I turned suicidal thanks to the medication I was trying at the time, and then the psychiatrist changed my meds. I saw a therapist who tried to help me, but I couldn’t understand some of the Chinese terms he mentioned. The language barrier was too much for it to be helpful. I think he realized this and tried to dumb down his Chinese to 4th or 5th grade level Chinese, but it still didn’t help much.

I befriended a few of my classmates, and we went out to try different restaurants in the area during lunch. I learned then that I had the ability to make new friends regardless of where I went in life.

It was nice learning for the sake of learning. And experiencing city life in Taiwan. My grandmother and uncle cooked for me, and I got to know my extended relatives so much better.

And the food… the food was absolutely amazing. And dirt-cheap. To this day, my mouth waters at the mere thought of Taiwanese food.

And then I spent a week in Tokyo on my own. I wandered the streets during the daytime and returned to my hostel at night. I met up with a friend, and we went to the ramen museum and Pokemon Center.

Stopping for crepes along Takeshita-dori

And on the way back to NC, I stayed with my friend for a week in LA. That was a pretty great time, too, experiencing some of the food in California.

I chilled at home for a few months after. Got roped into teaching English at Hopewell Academy and signed up to work at Kumon and volunteer with Triangle ArtWorks.

The following semester, I was deeply depressed.

I watched more anime than I have ever before in my entire life. I think I binge-watched over 10 different animes, some of which contained five seasons or more.

I didn’t show up to class much. If I did, I’d fall asleep.

Despite living in APO section, I avoided the common room. I avoided social interaction. And I fell into a routine of waking up, watching anime, eating snacks, and rarely leaving my room.

There was a whole new pledge class, and I didn’t know any of them.

I’d grown distant from most of my friends, thanks to my semester abroad. And I couldn’t completely recover those relationships when I returned.

Somehow, I scraped by in my classes. Took Pubpol 301 and Compsci 101, among other classes. I managed to get A’s in most of them. But I rarely showed up to class.

That spring, things started getting weird.

I started thinking that license plates, the TV, and the radio were sending me secret messages. I read meaning into billboards and made connections where there were none.

Paranoid, I stayed awake at night, mulling over all the possibilities, all the connections… and I wandered restlessly around campus. I’d go into these spells where I couldn’t remember what I was thinking, where I wandered off to… nothing. Sometimes I’d cry so hard, I couldn’t see anything past my tears.

One night, I wandered around campus and grew scared. I saw patterns that seemed to have secret messages that scared me. And I felt unsafe.

Another night, I drank a little and grew unresponsive after watching an episode of a TV show with friends. I thought it had something to do with my life, like someone was monitoring my every move. And someone had sold my life story to entertainment centers or something. I can’t quite remember what I thought then.

But before long, I wound up in the hospital again. I thought it was for my own safety. Because I didn’t feel safe anymore.

I spent a month recovering. Endured another suicidal episode. Refused to take medication because I was convinced they were trying to hurt me.

Friends came by to visit. They made cards and brought flowers and gifts. But more than anything else, I appreciated their company. And I had some of the best conversations and memories with people there.

By the time I made it out of the hospital, I couldn’t finish up the semester. My professors told me I had missed too much class to reasonably pass. And I grew depressed again.

So another medical leave happened.

That summer, I went to Myrtle Beach with APO. It was a ton of fun, and I got a lot closer to some of the seniors who were in my class.

Grabbing ice cream near Myrtle

I also went to Animazement with a couple of my APO friends.

And then that summer was spent trying new things. Trying odd jobs like working at H Mart and Bojangles. And dating guys through OK Cupid. I must’ve gone on at least 30 dates throughout the entire summer.

I learned a lot more about myself and what I valued in the workplace. So that lent me more insight into what I wanna be and do in the future.

The fall of my senior year, I was struck by another depressive spell. This time, I barely managed to pass some of my classes.

Because most of my closest Class of 2017 friends had graduated, I no longer had a “friend group” to count on. I had a few close relationships with individual friends, but they didn’t always know each other.

So getting used to that was difficult.

I didn’t feel like I had as strong of a support system.

But I grew closer to the friends I had left on campus.

And I started to learn to prioritize my own health above all else.

This was the semester I learned that I valued quality of friendships over quantity.

And this spring…

Everything went well until about halfway through. I ran out of medication one weekend and turned suicidal again.

The following weeks were a mess of sleepless nights and sleeping all day. My sleep schedule was completely off, and I wasn’t able to function anymore. I disappeared from the social scene and isolated myself once again.

Springs have been rough in the past, so this came as no surprise to me.

But I’m recovering now. I still have some bad days (like today, where I didn’t get out of bed until about 5 PM and wasn’t able to focus on schoolwork), but most days, I’m as cheerful as they come.

I’ve started making more time for myself, to develop my hobbies and passions. To read and learn more and to write about my experiences and transform them into something meaningful.

I’ve started falling in love again, despite my best wishes. And this time, I think it has the potential to grow into something healthier and longer-lasting.

And I’ve come to realize the impact I have on those around me. And how people are genuinely concerned for my well-being.

I’ve felt more loved and a part of APO than ever before.

And I’ll focus on the time I have left with the people around me.

After all, we’ve only got so much time left. Might as well make the most of it!

This chapter is nearing its end, but it only paves the way to new beginnings.

Here’s to a strong end-of-the-semester and to the good times ahead in my final semester at Duke!

Artist who thinks and feels out loud

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