Lessons of Life

I wanted to write a short letter to those who may be interested in attending Duke University. It was only a few short years ago that I was also doing the same and now I am a recent graduate of this fine institution. What an exciting time to be preparing to attend college. If you will allow me a short moment of your time, I would like to talk about my wonderful experience attending and graduating from Duke University and hopefully offer some words of helpful advice. I guess in some ways you can call what I am about to say my “lessons of life”.

Life’s unknowns are what can yield the greatest joys and the greatest sorrows. When you are young and thinking about attending college, you have so much hope about the endless possibilities open to you. I wish to encourage you to continue to soar and think about these endless possibilities. But I also want you to consider some other aspects including one which carries incredible importance ‒ “debt”.

At this point it is worth pointing out that this letter is intended for prospective students who hail from modest means. If your family is wealthy and your tuition is guaranteed to be paid, my letter may not have any great significance for you. If you are unsure if your family counts as wealthy, let me explain the following formula based on the future payment of your university tuition. If your tuition will be paid with dividends of investments your great-grandfather made and the resulting cost has no bearing on your overall financial health, then for the purposes of this letter you are classed as wealthy. If this is not the case, then you are of modest means.

For countless generations, knowledge has been the key to power of the few over the many. It was the solemn practice through the many ages of humankind to keep even the most rudimentary aspects of knowledge hidden from people with more modest means. This lack of knowledge created a world where our forefathers were kept in educational darkness while a few were able to maintain power by having access to the type of knowledge we take for granted today, such as the simple act of knowing how to read. Yes, there was a time when throughout the world the very act of knowing how to read was considered a dangerous and treasonable act for those deemed the lesser classes of humanity.

But over the course of history we have seen the enlightenment of humanity and more of the human family gain access to knowledge. In the last few decades in the modern world we have seen an exponential increase in the availability of knowledge with much of it being freely available through public libraries and technologies such as the internet. The past few decades have also seen a period of liberation where elite universities opened admissions to a greater segment of humanity, which was once solely the domain of the elite. No longer do these hallowed halls reject intelligent individuals just because they are deemed the wrong class, race, creed, or religion. Something momentous has happened in the last few decades and that crack appeared at the gate of higher learning. Those who were formerly excluded now had a chance, albeit a remote one, to study in elite institutions such as Duke, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.

I was one of those who squeezed through this crack to study at Duke University. It was at this time that those like myself were starting to gain the chance to attend a university such as Duke. What a gift to those whose forefathers had always been systematically denied access to such institutions of higher learning. But this gift came with a cost. And this cost can often strangle you like a powerful serpent before totally devouring you. That cost was debt. And debt can be the trickiest of burdens.

Before I delve deeper into my discussion of debt, let me define three types of burdens you have in life. There are burdens for a reason; burdens for a season; and burdens for a lifetime. The burdens for a reason are a conscious life choice. We actively believe that by taking on this weight we will achieve a further aim in our life’s progression. If you attend Duke University, you should know that it is a burden for a reason. It should be approached with great joy but there will be academic, social, and financial burdens you will carry. And for those of us with lesser financial means, it may mean accumulating large quantities of debt.

As a young person you logically reason that this debt is a small burden compared to the joys of obtaining an opportunity to acquire a solid education with the boundless opportunities that will surely follow your graduation. The debt you acquire each year of school starts to accumulate and when the interest starts to accrue your debt for a reason becomes a burden for a season. You reason that this burden will only last a season and a short one at that. You reason it shall be a short season as your life will progress in such a smooth and upward trajectory that reasons for you undertaking this burden will be justified and soon relieved.

Here is where I pose a serious question that I myself had to face. What if life does not go as planned? What if at a young age you are loaded with burdens of a lifetime? Burdens of a lifetime are unique as they restructure your life and everything revolves around them. You can manage burdens for a reason or season with a small amount of foresight and determination. These burdens tend to come and go and are about the progress of what makes life unique and interesting. The burdens of a lifetime cannot always be so easy to adjust life to and, typically, your life becomes consumed by them. These burdens can take many forms. A parent or grandparent for whom you become the primary carer; a sickness such as leukemia that threatens to kill you; financial and career burdens that go beyond a temporary setback to the realm of the apocalypse. The list of burdens are too numerous and some may only be unique to your life. I have my own list. But to tell you my story would be a book in itself and I want to keep this letter short and about YOU. You, the student, thinking about what you will do with your life. The student thinking about your options in life and what you wish to do. But let’s briefly put aside the issue of burdens.

I want you to sit and think about this for awhile. Think carefully about life. You are about to make a momentous decision. You are thinking, “Should I attend Duke University or should I not”. “I am not sure if I can afford it”. Maybe it will come down to a school that you love but cannot afford and a school you hate but can afford. My advice is to listen to the wisdom and guidance of those around you but be sure to make a decision from your heart. Don’t give up the opportunity to achieve your dreams. And if Duke University is where you should be, then I support you every step of the way. It will be a wonderful opportunity that I believe will quickly become out of reach for the vast majority of those from more modest means. In fact, you might be one of the last generations to attend Duke University from what may be called a poor or middle-class family.

If you are unsure about your choices, then consider the following issues. Can my actions in life allow for a setback? What I mean is: what if life does not go as planned? Will you be able to readjust your life plan easily?

This is where my own experience at Duke University has become the burden of a lifetime. I was sued by Duke University over my college debt. The university has incredible legal resources that ensure their victory. Upon victory, you can expect the university to exercise its judgment and seize any money you have in any bank account. Garnish your wages until not only the bill is paid but the legal bills and interest are accounted for, which will increase the original amount by three to four times. Duke University has the right to hire to even hire collection agencies to contact you. Remember that this harassment can last a lifetime until you are possibly penniless or even homeless. Your credit, of course, is ruined thus hurting your chances to rebuild or apply for a job as many employers will check out your credit score. You will be denied access to your college transcript or a duplicate of your college degree. It is a very heavy lesson of life to bear.

Think about the following: ruined credit, harassment, losing all your money, and any money you may make. Permanent scars on your record in a world where computer databases keep records that last forever. Will this stop you from one day pursuing your passions, raising a family, or obtaining that dream opportunity in life? Before you sign your name to the Duke University admission letter, think of these things. Think in terms of burdens for reasons, seasons, and your whole lifetime.

Now, take a deep breath, and be grateful you have this opportunity and can even have these choices. You may think I am angry and bitter towards Duke University. I am not. In the end, after all my setbacks in my life and my burdens of life, I am genuinely happy I attended Duke University. I am most grateful that I was given an opportunity by the admissions committee to attend and that I received some help financially from the school. I am eternally grateful to the gracious donors who funded my scholarships, my attentive teachers, and lifelong bonds I made with fellow students.

Should you go, should you not go, should you seek something cheaper? I would say this much: Duke University is ranked one of the best universities in the world. If you have the opportunity then you should seriously consider taking it. In the future, people like us may not be afforded such an opportunity, and it could really be worth it in the long term. If my personal story makes you reluctant to apply to Duke University, then I can understand. I do not wish to scare you but to give you something to consider. I believe that you will make the best decision; just take a moment for quiet self-reflection and prayer. Your pathway will be made clear for you.

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