When senior Susana Gutierrez and her roommate finally got back to a changed Durham after abruptly leaving in March 2020, their first order of business was to make their Campus Walk apartment feel like home. They thrifted glassware, a dresser and a TV stand, and when the furnishing was complete they burned incense and drank tea, feeling like two accomplished “grownups.”
After a negative entry test, senior Andrew Raines went straight to the East Campus lawn, where he sat and chatted with his acapella group Something Borrowed, Something Blue for the first time in almost a year. They celebrated their reunion under a clear sky by listening to their new album, which had been released last month.
Gutierez and Raines had spent the last 10 months living a pseudo-college life at home. These small joys mark the beginning of their last few months as Duke students. Amidst the fun, though, they find themselves at a university hard to recognize as the one they left.
For students coming back to Duke this spring after spending the fall away from campus, the return has been a moment of joyous relief, but also of ambivalence and adjustment.
Their favorite Au Bon Pain orders taste just like they remembered—now they can even order them immediately with a mobile app. Their friends’ laughs are just as bright, even though they’re wearing masks and sitting six feet apart. But many integral aspects of the Duke experience have been lost to the pandemic.
A senior graduating in three years, Gutierrez had only been on campus for a year and a half before all students were sent home. The appeal of seeing her friends again was enough for her to return to Durham.
Gutierrez also did not have a desk at home and had to do her work on the edge of her bed.
“Having the space a young person requires to effectively do college has been really helpful,” she said, patting her huge apartment desk.
For other returning students, the decision to come back was more challenging. Sophomore James Leong spent his fall 2020 semester in Singapore, where coronavirus deaths and transmission rates pale in comparison with the United States.
However, being 13 hours ahead made group work and attending synchronous classes very difficult. The convenience of learning in the same time zone as his peers and professors compelled him to fly halfway across the world for the on-campus experience.
“I also didn’t want to miss out on the campus experience, or whatever is left of it,” Leong said.
Junior Stephanie Green vividly remembers last year’s away basketball game against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She attended a huge watch party at the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture and was swept along in the frenzy of an unsuccessful bench-burning to celebrate Duke’s victory.
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Now she’s back, and the watch parties and bench burnings have disappeared.
“The most I’ll do is watch with someone that I blocked with,” Green said on the day of the game.
Sophomore Hana Hendi wistfully recalled the rush of constantly seeing new faces at Muslim Students Association barbecues and game nights.
“I would always meet people I would have never crossed paths with,” she said.
Hendi appreciates how she’s able to become closer with the MSA members she’s known through this year’s Zoom events. But after returning to campus, she yearns to continue meeting new people.
“Last spring, I was introducing myself so often, I had a whole shebang! Now, I’m more limited seeing the people I met in my first year. It’s difficult to branch out except for club meetings and professional settings,” she said.
There are some experiences that Zoom meetings can’t reproduce. Among them is the harmonic voices of a choir soaring through the Duke Chapel’s high arches, swelling between stained glass. Raines is a member of the Chapel Choir. This semester, instead of performing together, each member is filming individual videos that will be edited together.
“We’re able to do more difficult music that we couldn’t do live, but it’s still not the same as standing next to a person and feeling vibrations coming from them. There's magic to that,” Raines said.
Still, this new and unusual Duke experience has its benefits. Online interactions have largely replaced the constant dash to classes, events and club meetings, leaving much more time for students to be in their dorms.
Green has made her room into her sanctuary and has become much more content with enjoying herself alone. She’s got a new hobby: completing 500-piece puzzles. She just finished one with a bridge and lots of flowers, with water flowing underneath.
“It’s a super low-cost hobby,” she said. “You get one for five dollars and spend the next three weeks doing it!”
Although many of her friends are living off campus, Hendi is grateful that she’s still able to bond more with people at Duke than if she were at home. She also enjoys the independence that comes with the college experience.
“Being mindful of my own wellbeing was something that really built my character in freshman year, and I became less sensitive to this in quarantine,” she said.
She’s regained this mindfulness since returning to campus.
As these students look to the spring and summer, it’s hard for them to see what lies ahead. The uncertainty about Duke-sponsored activities and graduation lingers.
Before DukeEngage announced that all summer 2021 projects were virtual, Hendi was looking forward to participating in an independent project, where she would have created a blood donation drive.
She is more than prepared for a summer alternative—she will serve as an emergency medical technician in Dallas.
“During my time at home I had taken EMT online classes. I’m not really bummed out about DukeEngage anymore because any opportunity to be able to help people is really important to me,” she said.
For students who still have more than a year of Duke left, there is a mix of optimism and acceptance.
Leong believes that this distorted Duke experience will be the new normal for a while.
“We should best get used to this and adjust accordingly,” he said.
Green hopes for a semi-normal spring semester for her senior year. For her, Duke springs are unparalleled.
“You can tell people are happier because it’s warm out, and there’s a lot to look forward to, like LDOC and beach week. There’s all the invitationals for the incoming students. Everyone wants to put their best foot forward for Duke,” Green said.
Returning seniors feel, like the Class of 2020 did, the loss of a normal graduation season. Though it comes as no surprise, they still mourn the once-imagined lasts they’ll never share: the last basketball game, last LDOC, last showcase.
Raines will be graduating in fall 2021. He lamented that he won’t be able to celebrate graduation with his friends that are still studying remotely at home, and that he wasn’t on campus last semester to celebrate with his friends who graduated early.
Hugging was also a daily part of Raines’ life.
“That fact that I won’t get to hug these people goodbye is really sad,” he said.
Gutierrez, with her accelerated Duke experience, regrets that she won’t be able to have a normal beach week celebration, and that she won’t be able to make one last trip to Shooters II Saloon.
“I didn’t even like Shooters. I was going to go just so I could say I did it for the last time,” she said.
She will be graduating and turning 21 within the same week.
“I’m hoping if we are at a safer point, I can have one big last hurrah with some friends in my apartment, celebrating my graduation and being a real adult,” Gutierrez said.