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First-years: If Duke doesn't feel like home yet, don't worry

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Dear newest Blue Devils,

I first want to congratulate you not only on getting into a school like Duke, but also on successfully getting through these last couple of weeks, which have undoubtedly been a microcosm of your larger journey toward getting here. Between packing up all of your belongings, leaving the comfort of a familiar zip code, and saying goodbye (at least temporarily) to family and friends who have been by your side since the beginning, I know what a whirlwind these last twenty-something days must have been. Now that O-Week has wrapped up, how relieving it must be to just breathe, and to really begin getting acquainted with what everyone is now hailing as your “new home.” But hold on—time-out. Something’s not right here.

If Duke were already your home, then why would you have to get acquainted with it? And on the flip side, if you’re just now getting acquainted with Duke, how then can you be expected to think of Duke as your home today? The answer: you shouldn’t be expected to, and by extension, Duke shouldn’t necessarily feel like “home” just yet. And you know what? That’s OK.

After all, who could blame you? For a lot of you—maybe even a majority—this will be the very first time you’ve had to completely start from scratch: new city, new climate, and not a familiar face in sight. That’s not a natural transition for anyone, and while seemingly everyone around you is welcoming you with free swag, free photos and free advice on how best to take advantage of your next four years on this campus, it’s OK if this place they call “home” doesn’t really feel like home just yet.

It certainly didn’t feel like home to me during my orientation week. While seemingly everyone else was giddy with excitement, I was weeping silently in my room or against a wall off to the side so as to hide my homesickness from the rest of my peers. Duke was many things to me at that point, but I can promise you this: “home” certainly wasn’t one of them.

Fast-forward a little over three years, and one day I picked up the phone to my mom, who wanted to hear how an out-of-town interview had just gone. I don’t remember much from that particular conversation, but there is one phrase I’ll never forget: “Honestly, mom, I’m just so happy to be home.”

Only difference was, this time I wasn’t standing in the house I grew up in when I spoke those words. No, I was speaking from the same coordinates on a map where you now stand—the same ones I would’ve happily run away from during those first several weeks of my Duke undergraduate career.

This is because “home” is a process—always has been, always will be. However you define it, I think we can all agree that somewhere in your perception of “home” is the intersection between security and belonging. While I would hope that you come to embrace the relative safety of Duke’s campus rather quickly, I would never expect you to feel like you have found your sense of belonging right out of the gate. But there is hope.

There is hope, because you are now part of a university that spares no expense to give you practically limitless opportunities to discover a community that you feel you belong with. Here’s the only catch: with few exceptions, those opportunities won’t simply come knocking on your dorm room door. More often than not, you will have to seek them out, so don’t wait.

If you see a flyer, a Facebook post or a BC Plaza tabler for a student organization that sounds even remotely interesting, do seize the opportunity to check them out, because you really never know what gems you might mine that will change the course of your Duke experience forever.

Similarly, when Gary Bennett emails you his “Short List” every Monday, if you’re not already late for class, take a few seconds to read through the five events he’s chosen to highlight for this week (Pro tip: there’s a reason he chose those five thingsthey’ve got to be pretty awesome).

Perhaps the greatest opportunity you now have as newly inaugurated members of this campus is the overabundance of equally curious, ambitious and passionate peers who are just as eager as you are to make a home out of Duke for themselves. Talk to them; pick their brains; at the very least, introduce yourself. Even if you only reach out to one new person each day, I think you would be amazed by the unlikeliest of circumstances out of which the very best friendships in college can emerge—friendships that will go a very long way toward making your new place of residence feel like a residence that you call home.

In closing, I’ll leave you with this: for all of the difficulty I’ve already shared with you surrounding my original transition to Duke, saying “goodbye” to Duke three-and-a-half months ago might have been even more challenging. That’s because after forcing myself to put into practice all that I’ve shared with you above, it happened: Duke became my home too—a home I would’ve happily never left if I didn’t have to. And if you’ve already got a plan for how you are going to find the communities at Duke in which you feel like you belong, then you’re already better than the author of this letter, and there’s not a doubt in my mind that Duke will soon become your home too.

Wishing you all the best in this exciting next chapter, and as always, GTHC. 

Sincerely,

Rob Palmisano

Class of 2019

Rob Palmisano, a former Chronicle reporter, graduated with the Class of 2019. 

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