The Divinity School’s pre-orientation program has entered its 22nd year.

Project BRI(DDD)GE—Building Relationships in Durham through Duke Divinity Graduate Education—started in 1991 with six female and six male graduate students. Two decades later, there are 22 students, 10 leaders and a host of faculty and guest lecturers participating. The week-long program allows students the opportunity to connect with religious leaders in Durham before beginning their classes.

“We are wanting to connect our learning to the service of God, which is outside of these four walls,” said Rev. Sally Bates, Divinity ‘95 and Divinity School chaplain, who attended the second program in 1992. “Look at the joys and needs of the world, and Project BRI(DDD)GE can make that intersection happen.”

The program is open to all incoming Divinity school students. Participants are chosen by students and faculty through an application process that asks applicants about life experiences, the desire to complete Project BRI(DDD)GE and how it would help in their future ministry.

“We looked at the pool of students we had and they were all strong,” said Catherine Watson, associate director of student life at the divinity school, adding that every student who applied was chosen to participate this year.

The goal of Project BRI(DDD)GE is to acclimate graduate students to their new school and expose them to the Durham community through philanthropic activities. The program seeks in part to bring Duke and Durham closer together.

“That’s what I learned most. How unconnected Duke and Durham are,” said Breana van Velzen, a first-year Divinity student.

Bates noted the same divergence.

“It’s very easy to be at Duke, with the ivy covered walls and the gothic beauty, and lose sight of the community that the school is surrounded in,” Bates said.

Through the program, students work with a variety of different organizations to address long-standing social justice issues—such as poverty, racial inequality and disability status—that affect the Durham community.

Van Velzen said that the “Reality Party”—an event that connects teens and adults with developmental disabilities through a dance party—was one of her favorite aspects of the program.

Watson echoed this sentiment, adding that it is necessary to know the historical background of a group of people in order to minister to them effectively.

“You’re being an empowerer,” Watson said.

Besides emphasizing action in the Durham community, Project BRI(DDD)GE created long-lasting bonds between its participants, Watson noted.

She added that the participants are “a tight-knit group of people who impact the whole rest of the student community.”

Van Velzen also noted the power of their group.

“When other people are lost, we can expand our core group and include them,” van Velzen said.

Relationships formed during Project BRI(DDD)GE have withstood the test of time for Bates.

“It’s where I made my best and most lasting friendships,” Bates said. “We’ve been meeting as BRI(DDD)GE group faithfully for 21 years. And I think we haven’t missed a year.”