I covered every white space on my wall. An ocean-themed tapestry over my couch, a Bruno Mars poster next to my mirror, photos of myself and my friends everywhere in between. They have to think I’m cool.
When I accepted a job as an East Campus RA last year, my first thought was simple: I’d have a single. Finally, a chance to take all of my prints, posters, and polaroids to create a Pinterest-worthy dorm room—a space that was all my own.
But those decorations weren’t just for me. My room had to be a conversation starter.
The first conversation occurred a few days after move-in. Around 10 p.m., a floppy-haired first-year sauntered by as I was rifling through my desk. He complimented my “Avengers: Endgame” poster, and before I knew it, we had launched into a lengthy discussion about Steve Rogers’ character arc.
As the weeks passed by, those conversations kept piling up. I got to know my residents better each time they stopped in front of my door. Most importantly, I had proven that I was approachable. From there, my job was smooth sailing.
The one thing all Duke dorms have in common is that the buildings were made for passing interactions. If I didn’t realize it when I first set up my room, it became obvious when my residents started opening up their doors, too.
A standard RA on-call round in Alspaugh took about eight minutes if you walked purposefully—but as the semester progressed, each passing hello turned into a full-blown therapy session. I eventually mastered what I called “The Concerned Dad Lean.” Resting my shoulder on a door frame, I’d hear about how one girl bruised her leg at Wheels after skating on one too many shots of Aristocrat the night before. Another resident would confess his fears about passing Stats 101 and ask for my advice. (Chegg.) I’d hear the three-pronged reasoning for why one resident’s roommate should break up with her O-week boyfriend.
This is how I built my community. This was what turned the ancient building into a home.
This experience isn’t unique to being an RA. My first semester at Duke was largely characterized by my dorm’s tendency to leave our doors open. I gravitated towards people who were willing to open their doors and welcome conversation.
Kim on the third floor was my first open-door friend, best known for her room’s ambiance. She bought a comfy couch to fill the empty space of her single. Her fridge was filled with a constant supply of Capri Suns that she’d offer to anyone who passed her room. The scent of lavender from her oil diffuser would waft into the hallway, tipping off everyone that Kim was there. Open doors like hers made the residence hall feel like a home.
This semester’s hallways look far different. My residents are quick to scurry inside their rooms, throw off their masks, and dig into their to-go boxes. On the walk to the bathroom, toothbrush in hand, you won’t find any open doors to peer into.
Even filled with people, my dorm feels like a ghost town.
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What will happen to the dorm communities previously built on everyone quite literally opening their doors to one another? How can my residents make meaningful connections with their neighbors without bonding over the fact that they all bought the same elephant tapestry?
And while I long for the days of open doors, other students are now facing far greater struggles. Whether they scrambled for last minute Durham apartments or just finished moving a new desk into their childhood bedroom, I’m ever-conscious that my Duke living situation looks drastically different from theirs.
At least I still get to stand in those dorm hallways.
Our Duke experience this fall looks nothing like it has before. That’s devastating. But it’s also an opportunity.
Quarantine has forced us to connect with each other in unique ways. A year ago I couldn’t name five online party games you can play remotely with your best friends, but this year I’ve spent almost every Sunday night of my summer honing my Jackbox skills. We can’t open our doors to greet any neighbor walking to get their laundry, but we still have one thing in common to talk about: how bizarre, upsetting, and utterly foreign our Duke experience has become.
And while I can’t have those experiences again, I’m grateful I had them at all. I’m grateful that my friend Kim kept her door open, couch clean, fridge stocked, and her diffuser...diffusing? I’m grateful for the night I got to listen to a stranger give her tearful movie review of “Titanic,” tissues in hand. And I’m grateful for all those nights on-call where I couldn’t wait to do my rounds so I could ask everyone how their day went.
We may be physically isolated this semester, but my dorm can still harbor community. My virtual door is always open.
Jake Malone is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Fridays.