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Duke Immerse students robbed of more than $20,000 worth of items, including laptops, passports, IDs

On the night of Oct. 13, students in the Duke Immerse: Imagining the Future of Food course stopped in Oakland, Calif. to eat dinner and get ice cream. They left their backpacks and suitcases inside two vans. When they returned, they found the vans’ back windows shattered. 

All of their backpacks, several suitcases and 11 laptops were missing. Laptops, driver’s licenses and passports were among the stolen items. 

Junior Isabel Wood told The Chronicle that the students lost more than $20,000 altogether. She estimates each person lost between $1,500 to $3,500 worth of belongings.

Junior Sabhyata Jha, a Duke Kunshan University student from Nepal, had her entire backpack taken. 

“I'm here for my semester abroad, so it was kind of a gamble doing this program and also deciding to travel across America," Jha said. “I was doing everything that was told to me. It wasn't like I was exploring by myself.”

Jha lost her laptop, passport, national ID and permission form from the Nepalese government. 

“I just have my Duke Card and my one debit card with me and my phone. That's everything,” she said.

When Saskia Cornes, assistant professor of the practice of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and co-director of the course, learned of the robbery, she contacted the police, the Duke Global Education Office and the rental company for the damaged vans. Her belongings were also stolen. 

She then called Amanda Kelso, executive director of the Global Education office, at 1 a.m. in Kelso’s time. 

“By the time I woke up a few hours later, she’d already smoothed the way for all of us to fly home together,” Cornes wrote in an email.

In the airport, Jha said that security looked at student’s digital copies of their identifications and put them through “a very thorough check” before letting them onto a flight back.

After students returned to campus, they had to figure out how to replace their stolen items. 

Junior Michelle Liang, who is also an international student, lost her wallet, identification and passport. 

“I think the main problem is that I cannot replace my passport without a photo identification. And I can't replace my photo identification without a passport,” she explained. 

Liang was also frustrated after trying to call customer services for help. “We called Visa Services. And they were like, ‘Sorry, we can't help because we don't deal with passports. We only do visa stuff,’” Liang recalled. “So then we called [Duke’s International House]. And [they were] like, ‘Did you call the Visa service?’”

Jha was disappointed that Duke left so much for students to figure out on their own. 

“It's not like I'm experienced in getting robbed so I know exactly what to do and when to do it,” she said. “And I don't lose my passport every day in foreign countries to just know the course of action.”

Kelso wrote that she “arranged for affected students to receive loaner laptops and alerted various finance offices on their behalf.” Students were offered subsidized loans by Duke’s financial aid office. 

But Wood doesn’t feel that a loan is enough. 

“This is a billions of dollars institution,” Wood said. “People pay a lot of money to go here. I worked like three jobs to pay off loans in advance. It’s just kind of a slap in the face to be like, ‘Here's a loan.’”

Kelso also wrote that faculty members leading the cohort’s classes were directed to make academic accommodations to give students time to recover.

The class that had been scheduled for the next day was used for group reflection rather than instruction. Professors have been relaxed about assignments and deadlines. Students were told to “take every [deadline] as a suggestion,” according to Jha.

“I’ve forgotten what we've learned previously because all of our notes were taken too,” Wood said. “How are we supposed to focus?”

“It’s a pretty tight cohort,” Jha said after a moment of reflection. “We went through the thick and thin of it together and we're dealing with it together.”

Anisha Reddy | Senior Editor

Anisha Reddy is a Trinity junior and a senior editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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