The beginning of incoming students’ first year at Duke will be unusual—even leaving aside the normal challenges that come with adjusting to college.
Enter junior Shrey Majmudar, Duke Student Government vice president of academic affairs, and his innovative brainchild: the Blue Devil Buddies program. The opt-in program, conceived by Majmudar and developed by a team of students in DSG, pairs incoming students, including transfers, with current students based on similar hobbies, interests, lifestyle choices and personalities. In doing so, it serves to foster community through conversations ranging from course selection to campus life.
In an April conversation with Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs, about the challenges incoming students will face in the fall, Majmudar emphasized the need for a new element of student-to-student support in Duke’s traditional orientation schedule—new programming that is especially important because students already face unprecedented disruptions to their normal social routines due to COVID-19.
“The amalgamation of these circumstances… means that our incoming students will surely face heightened anxiety about what the future holds and how they will adjust to college,” Majmudar wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
To help out incoming students, Majmudar collaborated with Ramya Ginjupalli, a junior and DSG vice president of campus life; Christina Wang, a junior and vice president of equity and outreach; and 13 DSG senators. Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, also worked with the group to launch the new, optional one-on-one mentorship program.
An algorithm designed by seniors Kate Chen and Luke Truitt, DSG co-directors of technology and innovation, will pair students based on their responses to a survey filled out by both mentors and mentees. These automated pairings will be subsequently evaluated by a DSG team member to ensure the students are compatible.
Students will be matched based on simple responses, including school of study (Trinity College of Arts and Sciences or Pratt School of Engineering) and club and academic program interests, in addition to questions from “what is your ideal Saturday night?" to "what are/were you most nervous about coming to college?" The questionnaire also asks for students to specify how often they want to keep in touch with their mentor or mentee during the semester.
Majmudar noted that the student body’s receptiveness to the initiative has been “tremendous” with roughly 1,100 mentees and more than 1,200 mentors enrolled by June 27.
“To have so many upperclassmen jump right in to find ways to connect with new students—to show them why this community means so much to them, to offer help for new students at this uncertain time—is really inspiring,” McMahon wrote in an email.
Previously, DSG ran the Duke Mentorship Program, which connected first-years with upperclassman mentors. A pilot of the program ran during the 2018-19 academic year.
The Blue Devil Buddies team has collaborated with Jordan Hale, director of new student programs and associate dean of housing and residence life, and Nicole Ponticorvo, assistant director of new student programs, to ensure that Blue Devil Buddies supplements existing advising programs such as the First-Year Advisory Counselor system.
“They have been great partners and advisors as we've gone about this process, and we're all on the same page that Blue Devil Buddies is not a replacement of student-to-student 'advising' that FACs provide during O-Week,” Majmudar wrote.
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Every week, from the release of student pairings in early July to the beginning of the school year, the Blue Devil Buddies organizers will send participants a list of conversation starters pertaining to a weekly topic ranging from academics and social life to plans for the future. The discussions—which will be held mostly over Zoom—may change to accommodate each student’s unique home circumstances and are designed to both cover a wide range of Duke-related topics and foster a genuine relationship between mentors and mentees.
The Blue Devil Buddies team also plans to check in on students throughout the latter summer months and into the Fall semester to fine-tune program features and ensure that student pairings are continually mutually beneficial.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to better reflect the role of the entire DSG team in the process of creating the Blue Devil Buddies program, and to add information about the Duke Mentorship Program.