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Scenes from the final day of major declaration

Cate Schick posing after she declared an IDM in Neuroscience and Computer Science.
Cate Schick posing after she declared an IDM in Neuroscience and Computer Science.

It’s 4:55 p.m. Friday, March 6, the last day for Trinity sophomores to declare a major.

In the middle of the waiting area at the Academic Advising Center, there’s a rectangular table with a white tablecloth. Once fully stocked with snacks for recent declarees, only a few short Deer Park water bottles, bananas and Oreo packs remain.

Shalonda Drake, a staff assistant at the center, packs up for the weekend. She’s been helping students declare their majors throughout the day. 

“The doors lock automatically at 5:00, so unless we hear them knocking or banging, they’re not getting in,” she said.

Visiting the AAC is the culminating step in the Trinity declaration process. To start, students answer a four-question survey, write a 250-word essay and fill out a What If Report—a plan for the courses they will take in their remaining semesters. Then students meet with their college adviser to discuss their plans.

Sophomores who make it through the process on or before March 6 will receive a new major adviser and register for the next semester on time. The stragglers get a couple weeks of leeway to declare and contact their major department before bookbagging. Otherwise, DukeHub will block their registration. 

For some Duke students, the deadline presents a challenge. They scramble to design interdepartmental majors, they wait on acceptance for their Program II proposal or they simply can’t find time for the trip to East Campus.

The time arrives: 5 p.m. The Center is quiet and nearly vacant. Only Drake and recent declaree Colin Lee, a sophomore, remain. Lee zips up his backpack as he prepares to bike back to West Campus. Drake turns off some of the lights. 

At 5:05 p.m., there are three knocks on the double door.

Drake invites a student in. She’s the last, out of a host of final-day declarees, to declare her major.

The Program II rush

Colin Lee left the Bryan Center at 4:40 p.m. to bike to East Campus and declare before the 5 p.m. deadline. He didn’t think he’d make it. 

He did—at around 4:55 p.m.

Lee spent his first year of college at Johns Hopkins University studying biomedical engineering. He enjoyed the classes, which he described as “non-didactic” with lots of hands-on learning. But hoping for more emphasis on student life outside of class, he decided to transfer to Duke. 

College is “four years of freedom where you're in this ambiguous period,” he said. “You are not in that structured life of high school and living under your parents, but you’re not in that structured life of work. So why not optimize that outside-of-class time?”

The summer before he came to Duke, Lee became more interested in the humanities, while maintaining his interests in technology and medicine. Eventually, he thought of a way to merge these interests.

“Why not focus on the humanities aspects as well as the technological aspects of energy?” he said.

He decided to create a Program II major, which lets students design their own course of study, called “The Energy Mechanics and Geopolitics of the Middle East.” He drew from the Pratt School of Engineering’s energy-engineering minor, Trinity courses and the Nicholas School of the Environment. 

“It's focused on understanding how implementing renewable energy resources can benefit certain communities, but also understanding how changing energy resources alters political, religious, social and cultural backgrounds,” he said. 

But on March 4, Lee received an email from Program II Director Rachael Murphey-Brown, who also serves as dean for Trinity transfer students, telling him his major was still under review but advising him to declare it before break. 

So on Thursday, March 5, he decided to begin the declaration process for a double major in chemistry and Asian and Middle Eastern studies.

“I spent like five minutes on the short essay,” he said.

Lee called his current majors “placeholders,” but said he’s not opposed to getting the free t-shirts that students get after they declare. Still, he doesn’t see a point in posting the so-common “I declared” photo with his sticker on social media. 

“You’re AMES and chemistry. The next day, you’re not AMES and chemistry anymore,” he said. “But if I somehow fail the full three or four coming-up Program II applications, I’m pretty content with chemistry and Asian and Middle Eastern studies.”

Trekking to East

With a busy schedule, sophomore Jacob Kitchen found time to declare his two majors around 1:30 p.m. Friday. He hadn’t been free other days, and he wasn’t going to sacrifice sleep for declaration. 

“Brah, I’m not waking up at 10:00 before my classes to come to East,” he said. “This was the freest block of time.”

Though Kitchen waited until the last day to make his majors official, he has known his academic plans for a while. He came to Duke knowing he’d study economics. Then, Kitchen became interested in computer science after some classes with friends. 

Plus, he said the computer science major will only require about six classes in addition to economics. Still, “it’s a pretty packed schedule,” he said. 

Other than the inconvenience of traveling to East, the major declaration process posed no problems for Kitchen. He wrote the short essay in 10 minutes one morning last week, before he met with his college adviser. 

And he found the What-If report useful. Before he completed it, he wasn’t as certain about which courses he would need for graduation.

Though he’s confident about his major choices, he’s not planning on posting a photo with his major-declaration sticker.

“I’m not basic, so no, I’m not doing that,” he said. 

Proposing an interdepartmental major

Cate Schick considered many possibilities before declaring her interdepartmental major—between neuroscience and computer science—March 6 around 1:30 p.m.

“I've bounced between political science, I was [public policy] for a little while, [international comparative studies], linguistics,” she said. “And then around spring semester freshman year I settled into, ‘Oh, let's be a neuro major.’”

Although she nearly completed the coursework for a neuroscience major, she soon realized that some of the remaining requirements weren’t interesting to her. Simultaneously, she was becoming more interested in computer science.

“What I actually want to do isn't really in either specific field. It's more like the gray area,” she said. “I really like machine learning, the neural networks of neuroscience, the brain pathways, connectivity. And in comp sci, I really like the coding, programming, machine learning aspect.”

She decided to propose an interdepartmental major: a 14-course major, with seven courses in each of two departments. She’s been putting together the course of study, titled “Artificial Neural Networks,” for the past two weeks. Throughout the process, she has communicated with her dean, potential major advisers and the directors of undergraduate study for both departments. 

The IDM was almost ready, but Schick ran into a roadblock Monday when she learned she’d get to spend next semester in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

“I had to redraft my entire proposal because of the fact I have to account for an entire semester that I'm doing other things,” she said. 

In addition to her IDM, Schick is double minoring in Russian and Arabic. She’ll have to overload most semesters, but she said she isn’t worried about completing the requirements. 

After completing the IDM forms and writing her major-declaration essay—during her academic advising meeting—she’s excited to post a photo with her major-declaration sticker. 

“I feel like that Chapel pic, everyone makes fun of it, but it will mean a lot to me,” she said. “This is what I'm happy to be doing. Yeah, I'm always stressed out doing it, but I love it and you could see the beautiful Chapel in the back.”

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