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'A bittersweet feeling': Seniors studying remotely reflect on their decision

A year ago, nobody in the Class of 2021 expected that their final semester at Duke would involve Zoom lectures and social distancing. 

Some seniors are living on campus or in Durham, trying to maintain some semblance of the last hurrah they always thought they’d have. But for others, remote learning has provided an opportunity to pursue an entirely different senior experience. 

Senior Justin Koga decided to live with his family in Irvine, California this year so that he could focus on his two jobs—a part-time job for a virtual reality company and full-time job for a home appliance company in the SmartHome sector—while also taking classes part-time. Koga said that his routine has been effective but “kind of insane.”

Koga is enrolled in two two-and-a-half hour classes, one on Monday and one on Wednesday. He works for the home appliance company from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays when he doesn’t have class, but works later into the evening on class days. Koga does work for his part-time job, creating virtual reality games for educational settings, on the weekends. 

Despite his rigorous schedule, Koga doesn’t have any regrets and said that doing these jobs has taught him a lot about himself. 

“I guess the reason why I’m here at home is because I really got a taste of the real world when getting these jobs. Once you have a taste for the real world, it’s hard to divert your track,” Koga said.

Koga said that he loves spending a lot of time with his immediate family as well as with his grandparents, who live down the street from his house. 

“Spending all this time with family is something that I realized I will probably never get to do again. It’s genuinely been a super nice experience being at home, having family meals every night,” he said.

Senior Hannah Zhuang is also finishing up her last semester from her family home in Staten Island, New York. She decided to do her senior spring from home because of worries about the COVID-19 pandemic, to save money and to spend extra time with her family while working on law school applications. 

Zhuang added that she prefers remote learning to in-person classes in many ways, which was part of her decision to stay home. 

“From my conversations with other people, a lot of them seem to hate Zoom University. But I feel like it’s sometimes less stressful, because when it’s asynchronous, you can time your own schedule,” Zhuang said. 

Zhuang said that on campus, she has valued attending weekly meetings for a Christian ministry she is a part of. However, she noted that the meetings are completely virtual this year, so she is able to get just as much out of the organization as she would have from Durham. 

Unlike Zhuang and Koga, who have been at home all year, senior Mary Gooneratne made the move to Denver, Colorado in early January to pursue an entrepreneur-in-residence program while taking courses part-time. 

Gooneratne, who said that she has “wanted to start a business for a long time,” debated whether to take a full-time job this fall but ended up declining the offer. When a venture firm in New York offered to give her and her co-founder, a Duke alum who graduated in December, funds to start their own financial services company, Gootneratne had a tough choice to make.

“It was a very difficult decision to make. I’m someone who very much values my friends and has so much fun with them. But this just felt like a time-sensitive opportunity that I thought my friends would support no matter what,” Gootneratne said.

While Gooneratne hasn’t been living in Denver for long, she said that she is having a great experience so far. 

“I love living in a new place. I would say it’s been challenging for sure, but those are the environments that make me the most excited, a bit of pressure and a bit of challenge. I’m excited to be in this environment,” she said. 

Gootneratne said that while the project is still in very early stages of development, she and her co-founder have the goal of pursuing the company full-time after they officially graduate.

While none of the three seniors have regrets, they all reflected that they miss being at Duke in some ways. 

Koga said that he misses all of the day-to-day experiences that came with being a Duke student before the pandemic. “Back at school, I’d just go to impromptu performances, walk in the gardens, get chicken nuggets at three in the morning,” Koga remembered. 

However, he said that he feels he took full advantage of his time at Duke, and that he’d advise any current or incoming students to do the same. 

“I really maximized my experience there. I prioritized experiences over everything else. Even if I was tired or had a lot of work to do. My whole mentality was experience, experience, experience,” Koga said. “It’s a bittersweet feeling, but other than really missing my friends, I really feel a deep sense of closure, and a feeling that I’ve done pretty much anything I could have done at Duke.” 

Gootneratne, on the other hand, worried that she hadn’t spent enough time with her friends before she left, because she also took a gap semester before the pandemic hit. However, she said that she’s been able to stay in contact with her friends via FaceTime and hopes to visit soon. 

Zhuang noted that she has actually been able to connect more with her friends while at home. “Since everything is online, you might as well just reach out to people,” she said. 

Even though they would never have expected their senior year to look this way, none of the seniors have any regrets about their decisions to take an unconventional path. 

“I would say that my biggest takeaway from making this decision was realizing that the most important thing is making the decision that makes you the happiest. I think I spent a lot of time worrying about how my parents would interpret the decision, or how my friends would interpret it. But I just decided to do what I knew was right and what would make me the happiest and I think it alleviated a lot of distress,” Gootneratne reflected.  “It felt like following my heart to come here, so I’m glad I did.”

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