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make Duke weird

My first year at Duke was a tough one— spent navigating D1 athletics, Chem 101, new friendships, illness, injury, the total first-year experience. Everything was changing so fast and every day seemed to bring a new obstacle, yet I knew I had one constant at Duke—I would be greeted with love by Julia at Marketplace breakfast. 

Before she had even met me, she greeted me each morning, along with every other student who streamed into the dining hall with a “Hey baby! How you doin’?” No matter how many hundreds of students she had greeted, how early or late it was, or how students responded, she greeted each one with bountiful kindness and energy.

Over time, our brief interactions became long conversations and these long conversations formed a strong friendship. In my years at Duke, has been a constant source of unconditional love, endless wisdom, laughter, support through highs and lows, and wonderful conversation over meals. What was first one friendship unfolded into many more, as Julia introduced me to her co-workers. I’m lucky enough to have a community there, what I consider a family away from home. Because of their friendship, Marketplace has gone from simply a dining hall into a space of endless love. 

While returning the staff’s kindness should be a baseline expectation, it goes an incredibly long way. In fact, Julia told me that “Interacting with the students and getting to know the ones that take time to ask ‘how’s your day?’” is her favorite part of the job. Friendships start simply and organically here if you treat employees with the same respect that you treat your peers. 

While close staff-student friendships are considered unconventional at Duke, they shouldn’t be. As first-years, you interact with the Marketplace staff every day for a whole school year. After a year of daily interaction, how do you not form a relationship to some extent? Why is it rare that students ask about employees’ days or about their backgrounds the way they would ask other students? 

This mindset, seeking friendships with students but not staff, is not purely over our differences with the staff, as we as students share friendships despite multitudes of differing identities. Rather, it demonstrates a value system in which we don’t value the staff to the same extent that we do fellow students. Despite an overwhelmingly progressive campus culture, it is an elitist and classist mindset that shapes this value system. 

Staff members do more for us than we ever realize. One night of my first ever O-Week, seven friends and I piled onto the CCX en route to a fraternity party. “Where are you ladies heading tonight?” said the bus driver. 

Our cluelessness gave us away as first-years at first glance, and he asked, “You need any help?” Once I told him the address we were heading to, he told me what stop to get off at and the walking directions. Before we hopped off the bus, he stopped us to tell us to be safe and look out for one another. This was my first interaction with Big Mike, and I was awestruck by the genuine care he showed for eight strangers. 

While Big Mike is a bus driver, he’s become famous for something beyond his bus driving skills—although he can hit turns in a double-length C1 like nobody’s business. But Big Mike has won hearts for the infectious love and kindness he spreads on campus. 

Brief encounters on the C1 and CCX became long conversations, and eventually I was hopping on the buses just to ride back and forth and talk to him. Throughout the years, I’ve been lucky enough to develop a beautiful friendship with Big Mike and his wife Pam. We share meals together, regularly check up on each other and support each other through hard times. After every interaction, I walk away with a new nugget of wisdom.

“We all learn by interacting among each other,” Big Mike told me, “We coexist within a fishbowl of people of different ages, nationalities, sizes, ethnicities, careers, economic backgrounds, personalities, abilities…the list is endless. We all bring something to the table, so I try to slowly get everyone a little out of their comfort zone without imposing on them.”

It is exactly this mentality that is the foundation of Big Mike and my friendship. Despite our differences in nearly every demographic sense, we are friends to the extent that we’re family. Thanks to this bond, I have the privilege of learning from his plethora of stories and wisdom. Of all of the incredible faculty at Duke, there is no one I’ve learned more from and been influenced by than Big Mike in my time here. 

Likewise to the nature of close friendships between staff and students, it appears that this sort of learning is rare at Duke. I cannot imagine that a significant amount of Duke students would claim that anyone but a faculty member has served as their greatest influence and teacher here. Yet, again, I see no valid reason for this. 

While our professors may be distinguished experts in their respective academic fields, that is just one realm of learning. As Big Mike reminds us, we learn from interacting with one another. Thus, if we recognize that the staff have complex lives, stories, and lessons, to the same extent that our professors do, we would more often see students forming relationships with and learning from the staff. 

If I hadn’t simply returned the respect that Julia gave me, I would be missing out on one of the greatest friendships I could’ve made at Duke. If I hadn’t simply returned the respect that Big Mike gave me, I would be missing out on the most important lessons I’ve learned at Duke. This in mind, the biggest takeaway from Duke career thus far is that I have as many friends to be made in the staff as I do the student body, and that I have as much to learn from the staff as I do my professors.

Bella Miller is a Trinity senior. Her column, “make Duke weird,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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