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'Slightly isolating': Off-campus juniors and seniors try to find community in an unusual year

<p>Students have found community where they can while living off campus this semester.</p>

Students have found community where they can while living off campus this semester.

It may be harder to build community in an off-campus apartment complex than in a traditional campus dormitory, but students are connecting with their classmates where they can. 

In July, Duke told juniors and seniors who had been planning on returning that they would not be able to be housed on campus, with limited exceptions. Many students scrambled to find leases in complexes close to campus—some along Erwin Road close to West Campus and the Medical Center, some closer to 9th Street and East Campus and others in various properties downtown. 

The transition was unexpected, and as junior Nicole Bonna said, “because of social distancing it kind of feels slightly isolating sometimes just being away from campus.” Bonna lives in The Belmont Apartments, just off of Erwin Road. 

Although located fairly close to West Campus, Bonna did admit that being off campus is still challenging, particularly without a car. 

“I mainly just engage with my roommate and the other people in our bubble,” Bonna said.

Still, she says that she’s had a positive experience, citing how “there’s some nice parts because I have a kitchen and my own bathroom.”

Junior Ben Howell also lives in the Belmont complex, and praised it as being “super close to campus.” 

“Honestly right now I like better being off campus because I don’t come to campus that much,” Howell said. 

Asked about the sense of community that exists in the buildings, Howell said the Belmont staff have events to build community and described how there are “a ton of Duke students just around that also live in the complex.”

He acknowledged he hadn’t been to any of these events and that he largely spends time with his friends who chose to live in the same complex. 

Senior Lillian Needam is a resident of the Whetstone Apartments, closer to downtown and said she has been pleased with her experience. 

Although it wasn’t what she expected senior year to look like, Needam said, it’s still been good. She affirmed that “it’s kinda hard to have community in a pandemic,” but that the apartments’ staff have tried to foster what they can.

“They did cookies for us one day,” Needam said. 

Like her classmates, Needam has mostly connected with people she already knew living in Whetstone. 

“I think there’s community for me because I know people who live in the building,” she said, specifically “two other apartments that [Needam and her roommates are] really close friends with.” 

The Whetstone resident also talked about how the “commute’s definitely farther, about a ten-minute drive to Blue Zone.” 

However, given the circumstances and her mostly online course load, Needam is satisfied with the situation, saying that “since I don’t go to campus that often, it’s OK.” 

At the Lofts at Lakeview apartment complex off of Erwin Road, senior Jonathan Avendano praised the property for being “pretty spacious” and “pretty conveniently close to campus, especially [French Family Science Center] and [Biological Sciences] which is where all my classes are.” He identified both pros and cons to the living arrangements, saying that “space is a big pro” but “I dislike that I’m so far from everyone.” 

Though observing that “community is nonexistent as far as the apartment itself,” Avendano, who lived in Hollows quad last year, admitted that “at the same time, I don’t feel like there was any community in Hollows either.”

Most of the juniors and seniors who were granted access to Duke-owned housing were placed in the newly acquired space in the Blue Light and Avana properties.

Junior Trent Gamel lives in the Avana complex. He said “it’s definitely a big upgrade in space and facilities” from his dorm room in Crowell last year, but that “it’s weird having to get my own stuff” as the apartment came relatively sparsely furnished. 

With regards to the community present in the complex, Gamel said “I don’t have a roommate and I don’t really know people, so on the weekdays I try to come [to campus],” taking advantage of the university-provided shuttle service that runs during the week between the Avana and Science Drive. 

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