'I’m ready to go into whatever’s happening': The story of a bittersweet first day of classes

Abele Quad, 7:30 a.m.

Abele Quad was empty on Monday morning, but within the dorms, thousands of students were waking up and preparing for their first day of class, ready to breathe life into a campus that had been under strict pandemic restrictions for almost two years.

A door in Craven Quad swung open, revealing several residential assistants carrying foldable tables, boxes of food and crates of juice to set up breakfast for their residents. Students gradually formed a line to get their share of Bojangles biscuits and Krispy Kreme donuts.

Sophomore Luis Graterol grabbed a biscuit on his way to his first class of the day, a differential equations course. He was grateful that Duke is hosting in-person events like the breakfast. 

“Last year was kind of like a half year in terms of the amount of stuff we could do,” Graterol said. “So seeing all these people outside and having a good time is a different experience."

Graterol took a bite out of his biscuit. “Wait, I thought I got egg and cheese! Why is there bacon?” he said. Confused, he checked the label. “Oh, well, I just can’t read. This semester is going to go great,” he joked.

But in all seriousness, Graterol said he’s ready for this semester. “I’m ready to go into whatever’s happening,” he said.

Nello L. Teer Building, 8:30 a.m.

When sophomore Zach Kannam walked into Teer 203 at 8:28 a.m, he discovered an empty lecture hall with the lights turned off. Though he knew his Introduction to Data & Decision Sciences course only had seven students enrolled, it was still strange to him that no one else was there. 

Sophomore Mohamed Ismail walked in soon after. 

“Are you here for EGR190?” Kannam asked. The two introduced themselves to each other and sat down. 

“I'm excited to get up out of bed and actually go to class, put on some real clothes, and not just be sitting at my desk looking at my computer,” Kannam said. “It's nice to be here, I get to see some people, meet some new people.”

EGR190 is a design-based project class that gives engineering students an opportunity for hands-on, experiential learning. This semester, students will construct a radio-controlled hydrofoil out of a child’s kayak hull. 

“I don’t know anything about aerodynamics, I don’t know anything about radio systems, but hopefully I’ll know something about them by the end of the semester,” Kannam said. 

At 8:30 a.m., only four students had arrived to class, with still no professor in sight. At 8:35 a.m., sophomore Swetha Sekhar came through the doors. She was surprised to learn their class had been cancelled.

“I will probably actually finish my breakfast, because I just ate like three bites and then ran,” Sekhar said.“I bought a bunch of cereal and milk, and I'm just hoarding it in my room, because I'm really bad about waking up in the morning. So, pre-empting that.”

Although Sekhar isn’t looking forward to early morning classes, she thinks EGR190 will be worth it because she will gain a lot of experience. She enjoys projects and working with her hands much more than more abstract math or physics. 

“If the class didn’t fall through,” she added. “I don't know, there’s only like seven of us. I think I've heard stories of that happening to some people, so I don't know what I'm going to do if this class gets canceled.”

At 8:50 a.m., the class received an announcement through Sakai: there is no class on Mondays, only Fridays. A mix of surprise and understanding filled the room as the students reacted to the news. 

“We’re probably going to do a lot of work outside of class,” Kannam said. “But now I can sleep in on Mondays, so that’s kind of nice.” 

Brodhead Center, 12:30 p.m.

Lines of hungry students packed the Brodhead Center as the building hummed with the sounds of chattering students and clinking silverware. Aside from people wearing masks, this lunchtime scene felt close to normal.

Upstairs on the second floor, several Duke Kunshan University juniors sat around fluffy gray couches, enjoying their meal. Junior Aryaman Babber said he feels more like a first-year at Duke than a junior. 

“We don’t know where anything is!” he said.

Junior Jingcheng Wu nodded. 

“I was looking for my classroom yesterday, and I actually ran into a bunch of [first-years]. They also thought I was a [first-year] because I was looking for the class,” Wu said.

Just outside the Brodhead Center, Duke Student Government President Christina Wang and Duke University Union President Ysanne Spence, both seniors, chatted with first-years they had befriended through Project BUILD.

Wang called this FDOC “bittersweet.” 

“It’s their first, our last,” she said. “It’s nice seeing everyone back on campus. It feels almost like a normal FDOC.”

East Campus, 12:30 p.m.

Across from the newly completed communal area by Southgate dorm, DKU seniors Emma Guo, Irene Li and Doris Lu walked through East Campus to reach the Wells Fargo on 9th Street. 

It was their first time on campus, Guo said. Initially, the three, who are from China, were going to spend their semester at Duke last year, but COVID-19 derailed their plans. 

“International students went back to their hometowns and we weren’t able to unite at DKU. But we finally got here,” Li said. 

They shared that they were still getting used to how big campus is, noting how much walking they had to do, the range of activities and the diverse options for classes. 

But Li, who took an acting class earlier in the day, found that the most difficult aspect for her was the language barrier. 

“They asked us to freely say any English lyrics [during her class] but I cannot even speak fluently in Chinese,” she said. “I’m going to drop the class.” 

When asked about what they thought of Duke’s COVID-19 policies, the three girls laughed and then went silent for a moment. Finally, Lu said that she felt safe, mentioning Duke’s weekly surveillance testing. 

“But it’s not as good as China,” Li jumped in.

In her acting class, the professor gave students the option to take off their masks, she said. 

“Most people took off their masks and I don’t feel really good about it because, compared to China, there are more confirmed cases here,” she said. “But [Duke’s policies are] better than my parents expected.” 

Over at East Union, students trickled in and out for COVID-19 tests. In the lobby, a photo booth for the first day of classes featured a blue backdrop embellished with Duke logos. Props lined a black table—glitter fedora hats, pom poms and a foam sign. 

The photographer, Nathan Wellman, was getting ready to pack up. He had been there since 8 a.m. and estimated that he had photographed 200 students, mostly during breakfast hours. 

“People are super happy, they’re glad to be back in the routine of things. Students are sending their parents pictures from the booth for FDOC, so it’s been fun,” he said. 

Compared to the Class of 2024, Wellman noted that this year’s group of first-years is “a little bit more calmer. They’re used to [dealing with COVID-19] now.” 

Downstairs in Trinity Cafe, employee Renata Spain-Steele agreed with Wellman’s assessment of the first-years. 

“They seem to be a little more at ease [than the Class of 2024 was] with most of the restrictions lifted,” she said. 

For Spain-Steele, the day was busy, but she didn’t mind. After a slow summer, she welcomed the fast pace and new faces. Taking care of first-years means explaining to them how equivalency works, telling them, politely, that there can only be four people at a table and offering them her support. 

“Some [first-years] have told me that they cried when their parents left, and I try to reassure them that everyone here is nice and if they have any problems or questions, just come to us,” she said. 

East Campus bus stop, 1:30 p.m. 

Sophomore Maille Sherry was cradling a potted plant and waiting for a bus to take her back to West Campus. Five pink roses peeked out of her tote bag. 

“I like your flowers, where’d you get them?” first-year Manny Lopez-Gallegos asked her. She answered that 9th Street Flowers had a bin of free flowers and the plant was from Harris Teeter. 

“Oh, Harris Teeter! Is that, like, a cafe?” Lopez-Gallegos asked. Sherry laughed, told him it was a supermarket and gave him directions to get there. 

Lopez-Gallegos’ first day was “amazing,” he said. He had started the morning with a workout at Wilson Recreation Center, then had one class—his Writing 101 course on Latinx and Cultural Studies. 

“I don’t feel limited like I did in high school. Whatever you want to say, you just throw it out and the teachers are very reciprocal about it, they just bounce off it,” he said. 

Now he was on his way to “study [his] butt off” at Perkins Library, which a friend had said was “really, really pretty in there.” 

Duke’s mask mandate was disappointing news, but made him feel safer, he said. 

“I think this is the best way we could have done it.” 

Bryan Center Plaza, 2:15 p.m

In the humidity of the afternoon, the Bryan Center Plaza was packed with students doing work and eating a late lunch. 

Seniors Kaela Basmajian and Jonathan Suna sat at a green table laughing with each other and enjoying Tandoor and Sazón between their classes. But getting their food had not been easy.

“[The Brodhead Center] was just a disaster,” Suna said. “I've never seen a line that long in my entire life. I made friends in line, the line was so long. But it was fun.”

Basmajian and Suna were people watching from their spot on the plaza. Basmajian said that they’ve seen a lot of friends so far, including a group of guys in black graduation robes walking around while making noise. 

“We think it might have been a secret society,” Suna said. “They were doing weird arm things.”

“They didn't talk to us, they just screamed randomly,” Basmajian said. “We didn’t really know what was going on, we just enjoyed the show.”

Basmajian and Suna have enjoyed making new friends and meeting first-years during Orientation Week. Basmajian said that people have been more receptive to having conversations after quarantine, since everyone’s anxious to get out.

“I feel like I've met more [first-years] this year than I’ve met sophomores,” Suna said. “So I’ve definitely been asked what my major is more times than I ever have in my life before this year.”

Marketplace, 6 p.m.

As students got off the C1, the sun hadn’t set yet, and it was quiet on East Campus. Groups of students leaving the bus and their dorm rooms flocked to East Union. Inside was a stark contrast from the silence outside—students chatted with each other and a Marketplace worker shouted at people in line to put their mask on and stand six feet apart. 

As a sign of the return to normality, students could serve themselves at Harvest, the salad bar and the dessert station. While the takeout cartons and plastic barriers on tables remained, students drank from glass cups and almost every seat was filled. 

Cousins Shantelle Mendez and Daphne Gomez, both first-years, sat at a table covered in empty takeout boxes. 

“The food is good! People were saying it was going to be bad, but I was surprised,” Mendez said. 

Gomez and Mendez both said they were hoping to not only meet new people but also to make lasting friendships. 

“You can talk to people when you’re waiting in line or on the bus, but it’s not like you’re going to hang out with that person that evening,” Gomez said. 

Outside of East Union, first-years Michelle Qiu, Yujin Kim and Anushri Saxena sat on the grass outside of Wilson residence hall and ate their dinner. They had plans to go to the A Cappella Jam in Page Auditorium after. 

“It’s easy enough to meet new people here. There’s lots of social events, but sometimes you end up making a lot of small talk and then you never see them again,” Saxena said. 

While they were glad about the relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, it also meant that the uneven enforcement of preventative measures across campus was confusing, Kim said. 

“I feel like [Duke is] sending out really mixed signals. We have all these super big events with very little masking going on, which I think is somewhat of a concern because of the Delta variant. But when you’re lining up at Marketplace, you’ll get yelled at to keep six feet distance,” Kim said. 

Unlike some members of the Class of 2024 who struggled to form connections, Qiu noted that due to the lack of strict COVID-19 restrictions, the pandemic hadn’t hindered her ability to make new friends. 

“I’m looking forward to getting into a daily routine, meeting new people and just getting involved with the Duke community,” she said. 

They continued eating, and East Campus fell quiet again. 

Alison Korn

Alison Korn is a Pratt junior and enterprise editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

Milla Surjadi profile
Milla Surjadi | Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator

Milla Surjadi is a Trinity junior and a diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator of The Chronicle's 119th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 118.

Katie Tan profile
Katie Tan | Digital Strategy Director

Katie Tan is a Trinity junior and digital strategy director of The Chronicle's 119th volume. She was previously managing editor for Volume 118. 


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