Senior Kerry Castor first heard the news about Duke’s transition to online classes while on the elliptical in Wilson Recreation Center. Her phone flashed with a message from her swing dancing club’s GroupMe chat.
“RIP showcase,” it read.
Earlier that Tuesday, Castor, who stayed on campus for spring break, had met a friend at M Kokko, a Korean and Japanese fusion restaurant. Over steaming noodles, the two had listed all the restaurants and bars in Durham they still needed to try together before graduation.
Then, Castor headed over to the Rubenstein Arts Center to choreograph dances for Devils en Pointe and Duke Swing. It was her first time choreographing for the upcoming showcases, and she felt nervous but excited.
When Castor heard the news about COVID-19, she sprinted out of the gym and started crying.
“I kept thinking about how normal everything felt that day, and how many plans we had that came crashing down,” she said.
That Tuesday evening, Castor gathered with her friends who had also remained on campus for spring break. They ate ice cream together and cried.
“We noticed the big things, but also the really small things we wouldn’t get to do,” she said.
As Castor scrolled through her social media that evening, she found it trivial that someone had posted about whether E-Ball had been canceled. Of course it would be canceled, she thought to herself. But then she realized she had been shopping for an E-Ball dress just that morning.
“It's something that I was doing that will never matter, because now I'm not ever going to need an E-Ball dress,” she said.
When President Vincent Price’s email announced the university’s transition to online classes March 10, the news left many seniors grappling with a painful realization: their life on Duke’s campus was over two months too soon. The curtains had fallen mid-act, with the actors halfway through their best lines.
These seniors tallied the major losses, like ruptured relationships and a postponed Commencement. But they also mourned the everyday moments—a final Chapel climb or one last oatmeal breakfast at Divinity Cafe.
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Senior Betsy Broaddus was staying with her partner in Austin, Texas, when she saw that Harvard had closed its campus.
She leaned over to her partner.
“Oh, my God, if Harvard did this, I bet Duke is gonna follow suit. But I really hope they don’t,” she said.
When she opened the email from Price, the situation felt surreal, like something born out of a bad nightmare.
But the reality of it all dawned on her when she remembered that Hoof ‘n’ Horn, a student-run musical theater organization, had been planning their April show, her last one before she left to launch a career in public policy. She would never experience the moment when she and the other senior Hoof ‘n’ Horn members would take their last bow on stage.
“I was never one of those people that was like, ‘Oh, God, I don't want senior year to end, I don't ever want to leave Duke.’ I have felt ready to move on, but also at the same time, I wanted to do that on my own terms,” she said.
The day after Price announced the postponement of Commencement, Broaddus returned to campus to take photos with her friends, in the arched breezeways of the Chapel, near a tree bursting with cherry blossoms and on Chapel Drive, the building’s four points looming behind them.
The campus felt like a shell of its former self, she said. The only people she saw were essential staff, who smiled at them with pity in their eyes. It stood in stark contrast to how the month of April usually unfolds on campus, she said, describing how one could walk by the Chapel on any given day and see seniors happily taking pictures.
That evening, she returned to her apartment feeling “totally dejected.”
Broaddus also said she misses the everyday interactions she experienced on campus. Every Wednesday, after her 8:30 a.m. class, she and her friend would have “the most iconic breakfast on campus”—oatmeal at the Divinity Cafe.
“There are things that just can’t be replicated outside of Duke,” she said.
Still, Broaddus and other seniors have tried to find ways to cope with their disappointment.
Broaddus has taken up letter writing, sending happy memories to her friends across the country. She also goes on walks with her dog, and, recently, she and her friends took her dog to Loco Pops, where they sell takeout popsicles, and she bought him a “little dog popsicle.”
When senior Rachel Lau first heard the news about campus while on a car ride with her mother, she felt angry at the unfairness of the situation.
What helps her soothe that anger and grief, she said, is remembering the pressing reasons for why Duke closed its campus, particularly the global devastation caused by COVID-19.
“When I began to take myself out of my own situation and understand why Duke was doing the things it was doing, it became very much like, ‘okay, I have to consider the larger effects of this,’” she said.
She also tries to direct her attention to caring for her elderly grandparents.
“I have to refocus my energy to doing something productive for the sake of those who might lose their lives,” she said.
But there are still times when her mind reverts back to the bleak reality of her own situation.
“When I fall back into that kind of framework, I panic,” she said. “Because it is a shit show.”
Castor has done her best to cope through running, hiking and briefly revisiting the Duke Gardens. Like Broaddus, she took her senior photos on the quad, though she hadn’t bought her cap and gown yet. Instead, Castor, about five feet tall, borrowed them from a friend who is over six feet.
“The pictures are going to look funny,” she said.
Castor also returned one last time to Divinity Cafe, where, during the semester, she had eaten close to three meals a day. She knows all the workers and always had friends there.
The Friday she returned, most of the people in the Cafe were clustered together at certain tables, sharing a final meal with their friends. Every once in a while, a new person would run in and hug one of the groups.
She also noticed subtle changes in the Cafe’s arrangements—how they had shifted to exclusively disposable containers, or how they had removed the coffee dispensers and salt and pepper shakers, eliminating anything that could transfer germs.
“There were so many larger problems in the world, but [the small things] contributed to this doomsday feeling,” she said.
She was unsure how long the cafe would stay functional—they had promised her they would be open three days a week, but who knew, given the circumstances. Before she left, she bought two containers of oatmeal, just in case.