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A strange introduction to Duke: First-years look back at the fall

Think back to your first day at Duke. Your parents just dropped you off, and now you’re standing in your dorm room, alone and uncertain. Now what? Will you make new friends? Will classes be impossible? Will you miss home?

Students in the Class of 2024 faced all of these anxieties and more. They started college during the deadliest pandemic in a century. Many of them experienced their first day of college in their childhood bedrooms. 

With the times turbulent and the future uncertain, the Class of 2024 had a beginning of their Duke experience unlike any class of first-years before. 

A virtual beginning

One of the most significant differences for first-years was a virtual orientation week. Duke programmed Zoom meetings about safety and academic resources, sometimes taking up hours in a day. However, the rest of the time was left open for first-years to explore campus and meet new people. This stark contrast between mandatory Zoom fatigue and hours of unprogrammed free time meant a tumultuous O-Week for some students. 

First-year John Lee didn’t know what to expect from O-Week, but he didn’t foresee so much chaos. 

“I thought the university itself was going to have more structured events where we could meet people,” Lee said. “But obviously it was not that. It was just people in clusters going around everywhere and saying ‘Hi my name is something and I'm from this place and I study this, how are you?' I was meeting like 50 people a day but not getting to know anyone. Honestly it was sort of chaotic and overwhelming.” 

Other students felt like they missed out on a real chance to bond with the class in the absence of in-person events. First-year Lucas Gonzalez said O-Week was “not very memorable,” and he wishes that he could have had a non-virtual O-Week. 

“Even though the content would have been the same, just the experience of being in a space together would have been a bonding experience,” he said. 

However, the shared experience of confusion also served as a bonding experience for many first-years. 

First-year Emma Williams remembers making some of her best friends during O-Week. 

“It was literally just groups of people wandering around and meeting each other, having the same conversation over and over again,” Williams said. “But I got some really good friends out of it, so it was nice.” 

Divided between campuses

Another unique aspect of the fall semester was the new housing arrangements for first-years. Some of the class of 2024 were assigned to East Campus dorms halls like usual, while others lived on West Campus. Asha Artis, Housing and Residence Life staff specialist, told The Chronicle in January that the majority of first-years living on West Campus were part of FOCUS clusters. 

Some students felt that this separation created a chasm between the two subsets of the freshman class.

“It’s less about the East experience and more about the fact that half the kids are getting it, so it’s this weird split between East kids and West kids,” Gonzalez said.

Still, some first-years on West Campus felt that they did not miss out on the East Campus experience because that experience simply did not exist this year. 

“I think part of the East Campus experience is that every freshman is on East Campus, and obviously not every freshman is on East Campus this year,” Lee said. “I feel like there’s less of an East Campus experience just because of that.” 

Williams also prefers West, for a simple reason: the “better food plan.”

A pandemic election

Last semester, many first-years cast their first ballot in a presidential election. Excitement and anxiety permeated campus as students rushed to register to vote. 

Some first-years recall the election week as a way to bond with their peers during a stressful time, especially on a campus where many students are politically active. 

“The election was definitely interesting,” Lee said. “I think Duke is unique because most people I know were engaged in the election or doing something actively related to the election. That made me more conscious and more aware of what’s going on, but also made the whole election process seem more high-stakes.” 

Williams said her best memory from the week of the election was getting together with her friends to watch the election unfold.

“Although I had friends in high school that were politically aware and politically active, I never had so many friends who were as politically aware and active as I did in this election cycle,” Williams said. “Not to take politics and make them a game, but it was nice to have people to go through that with.”

COVID-19 challenges

First-years often worry about how to adapt to Duke’s social scene. Traditionally, O-Week and other in-person gatherings allow students to make friends and transition into college life.

This year, administrators restricted in-person gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the class of 2024 faced the challenge of making friends safely in a pandemic. 

“Adapting socially was weird, because typically when you go to college you have to adapt to new classes and new ways of meeting people,” Gonzalez said. “With us, it’s doubly challenging because you’re adapting to college and you’re adapting to Covid college.”  

Like Gonzalez, Lee said he felt that COVID-19 amplified the typical challenges first-years face in forging new relationships, as there are “less opportunities to meet people, less opportunities to go out and explore new things.” 

Many first-years worried about how to juggle being safe with meeting new people.

“You have to balance being COVID-cautious and meeting new people,” Williams said. “If you’re like me and erring on the side of being COVID-cautious, you feel like you’re sacrificing meeting a lot of new people and new friendships and that’s a hard responsibility to hold yourself to every day.”

First-year Hattie Halloway also recalled a heightened social pressure because of the pandemic. “It was easy to make friends initially but then there was a gap between making friends and actually being close to them. I had a lot of anxiety about a lot of things.” 

This social pressure was also challenging for the first-years who chose to go remote fall semester. Kate Silver moved onto West Campus mid-year. 

“Seeing social media posts from Duke people was kind of hard, and I felt like I was missing out,” Silver said. “The biggest challenge for me was definitely [fear of missing out].”

Artis told The Chronicle in January that around 100 first-year students who took classes from home during the fall semester were expected to live on campus in the spring.

Unexpected joys

But the first semester wasn’t all dark and gloomy.

Whether bonding with their dorm communities or being able to roll out of bed to join morning class, the class of 2024 lived through a historic era and grew closer because of it.

“In the end, I made a really good group of friends,” Halloway said with a smile. 

Williams feels the same way. 

“I feel very blessed to have people in my dorm that I feel so close with and get along so well with. Having to spend so much time together as a result of not being able to go out has made us so close and intimate, and I appreciate that,” she said.

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