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Duke, but not really: Remote upperclassmen confront logistical challenges, nostalgia

Hop off the C1 at West Campus, make your way across Abele Quad, and you may sense something’s missing. It’s the upperclassmen.  

Duke didn’t allow most juniors and seniors to live on campus in the fall, though some have found housing off campus in Durham. Those weathering the semester out of town face a knotted mix of challenges and nostalgia.  

In-person Duke is already tiring enough. But the only gateway to Duke for remote upperclassmen is their computers, and online learning has been a struggle and a continuous adjustment for them. 

For senior Marium Khan, studying from Dallas, Texas, finding motivation to attend Zoom class is difficult. 

“There’s not much incentive to change out of your pajamas in the morning,” she said. “It’s so easy to go back to bed, but it’s even harder to take notes in bed, so everything is just downhill from there.”

In her last year, Khan feels she is really missing out on building personal connections with professors. For her, the best thing about Duke is the faculty. 

“I have been fortunate to have professors that have really cared about their students, and they’re just great people to get to know,” Khan said. But over Zoom, all the students’ cameras are off, and small talk with professors is either awkward or nonexistent.

Asked about the social interaction in his classes, Junior Jupiter Zhu said he is perfectly content with his situation. As a mathematics and computer science major, his classes would not have much more professor-student interaction in person.

However, Zhu did have a “messy beginning of the semester.” He lives in Beijing, China, which is thirteen hours ahead of Duke. His graduate-level computer science discussion section initially caused him to stay up as late as 4 a.m. 

Recently though, Zhu has decided to skip his synchronous lectures and has preferred to watch the recordings for the sake of his sleep schedule. “Now my sleep schedule is back to normal; I wake up at 6 a.m. and go to bed at 11 p.m.,” he said with a smile.

One aspect of remote learning that has been a plus for Zhu is his freedom to explore the Beijing area, where COVID-19 is now much less of a threat. 

“Everywhere is back to normal, I would say. Every weekend, my family and I either hike or visit parks such as the Summer Palace,” he said. “People still wear masks, of course.”

But in the United States, the coronavirus still rages and cases continue to rise. Senior Angel Reyes is living in New York and is making the most of his situation there. On the weekends, he and a few Duke graduates from around the area go down to Manhattan to walk around, shop and eat dinner. “We also do a bunch of tours at the museums,” he said. 

“I’ve been to the MoMA, The Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History and El Museo de Barrio. Capacity is very limited in each museum, so they’re all very safe,” he said.

In her downtime, junior Tara Olowolayemo of Bowie, Md., bakes in her downtime. She made pumpkin bread last week.

“I was so shocked at how good it came out! Honestly, I might be giving Vondy a run for their money,” she said.

Asked about the things she misses at Duke, Olowolayemo grew reflective. For Olowolayemo, there is not just one thing she misses. She said it is all the little things that make up the whole experience—scary movie marathons with friends at 300 Swift, McDonald’s hash browns at 3 a.m. and spur-of-the-moment trips.

“Chapel Hill was the only place with Insomnia Cookies, so my friends and I would make impromptu trips to go there,” she said.

But Duke students wear Duke gear wherever they go, which poses a potential problem when they are in UNC territory. “When we got off the bus at Chapel Hill, we’d look at ourselves and go, ‘Oh snap, we’re all in Duke gear!’ The Insomnia Cookies workers would look at us funny, but they’d give us the cookies anyway,” she laughed.

Junior Soren Christensen, staying in Arlington, Va., is a fan of Ikea and Duke’s libraries, both of which he sorely misses. 

“Ikea is by far my favorite store, and Bostock Library is basically Ikea in real life. It’s so pretty,” he said. He shared a photograph of the library’s Edge section, where  the walls are painted in a yellow geometric pattern and round light bulbs hang from the ceiling.

He made memories pulling all nighters at the library with friends, he said. “Unfortunately, if you’re a hundred miles away from the library, it’s somewhat hard to do that,” he added.

Khan misses another Duke spot most. 

“I miss seeing the reflection of the sunset on West Union,” she sighed. “It’s just the most beautiful thing ever. I wish I could paint that then and there.”

She doesn’t feel like she’s gotten to spend enough time on campus. 

“I’m a senior, but I’ve only spent two and a half years at Duke,” she said. 

Universities in other countries, such as Duke Kunshan, are “mostly functional now,” she noted.  

“The students [at these other universities] can go to in-person classes and events because the governments there have done enough to keep COVID-19 under control. Although it matters what Duke is doing to keep the virus under control, the best case scenario would be for the U.S. government to do a better job at containing the virus,” she said.

Looking Forward

No one, including these five upperclassmen, can change the fact that they have spent their last two semesters at Duke at home and online. However, Duke is currently planning to invite juniors and seniors back to campus in the spring.

Christensen said he’s looking forward to going back to Duke so he can truly appreciate the University in a way he might not have before the pandemic.

“Not being at Duke is somewhat enlightening in the sense that you realize how great life is at Duke, and you realize how many opportunities were given to you that were completely taken for granted,” he said.

For Zhu, coming back to Duke’s campus is still an uncertainty due to the U.S.’s travel ban on China.

“If I want to come back to campus, I’d have to fly to another country that is not banned from the United States, such as Cambodia, and quarantine there for fourteen days. Then, I can fly to the United States,” he said.

However, Zhu is not considering that option. Although the most ideal case would be to come back to Duke, he said he will most likely stay in Beijing if the travel ban is not lifted. He would have more mobility there than if he were in the United States, he said.

Reyes has a bucket list of things he wants to complete before he graduates in the spring. One of the items is biking from Durham to Raleigh.

He admitted that he will probably have to tweak his bucket list to make it more COVID-19 friendly. But he is still optimistic about having some form of a graduation.

“I am part of Pratt’s civil engineering program, which is quite small—there’s about 10 to 15 of us graduating this year. I think we’ll actually be able to [have a small graduation] in person if Duke allows,” he said. “Maybe even the entire Class of 2021 commencement can be in person, too.”

Katie Tan | Managing Editor

Katie Tan is a Trinity junior and managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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