First-year Sammy Marks stood at the foot of the Chapel Aug. 22 alongside his new friends, waiting to climb up the 239 winding steps to the top.
It was Marks’ third day on campus. As part of an orientation program called Project Discover, he prepared himself for his first chapel climb, the time-honored Duke tradition.
But with each step up the tower, Marks would also be blazing a new trail. The Class of 2026 is the first to experience an orientation re-design, an initiative administrators have hailed as the most significant change in Duke’s new student programming since 1995.
Part of Duke’s new QuadEx living/learning initiative, Experiential Orientation splits 1,740 first-years into 18 week-long thematically-based programs, ranging from exploring the city of Durham to conducting independent research. In line with QuadEx’s goal of building a more inclusive Duke community, administrators say that orientation programs will strengthen first-years’ sense of belonging.
The change, announced by New Student Programs last fall, was not without its critics. For decades, Duke hosted six pre-orientation programs that occurred before orientation and lasted more than a week. Students could apply to these optional programs, and there was a fee to attend.
After the announcement, orientation leaders feared the loss of traditions, grew concerned that they would be understaffed with all first-years in attendance and questioned why they weren’t consulted earlier.
Administrators say the new model is meant to emulate those beloved pre-orientation programs. And all six prior programs—Project BUILD, Project Waves, Project Wild, Project Arts, Project Edge and Project Search—have been redesigned as shorter Experiential Orientation programs with the same names.
Program directors for pBUILD and pWild noted that their programs have historically succeeded at creating community among first-years and were excited to share that experience to a greater number of students.
“Experiential Orientation is built on the success of our pre-orientation programs, which were excellent at fostering places of inclusion and belonging for their participants,” wrote Ben Adams, interim associate dean of students and director of new student and family programs, in an email to The Chronicle.
So far, for Marks, pDiscover, which gets Duke students acclimated to their new home by exploring the University and Durham’s best-kept secrets, has succeeded at doing so.
“It feels like we have a leg up over all the other people coming to Duke,” he said.
Chapel Quad, 9:30 a.m.
Faces flushed from the exertion of their early morning workout, a group of students descended from the highest point on Duke’s campus.
“How was it? How was it?” one student on the grass yelled. Despite the Chapel’s steep and narrow winding stairs, the group was all smiles.
Standing next to Marks, first-year Nate Krall waited for his group’s turn. He’s directionally challenged, he admitted, but pDiscover lets him get to know campus and Durham before classes start next week.
“It's almost relieving a bit, you can familiarize yourself with what's around you before you start up college,” Krall said.
A staffer called for the next group and the two disappeared, rising up the staircase that would take them to the top of the Chapel, overlooking their new home.
Rubenstein Arts Center, 11:00 a.m.
You could feel the creative energy buzzing through the Ruby. On the top floor, twenty students crouched on the ground, dipping brushes in paint. A few doors down, ten students spun on their toes, working on a dance number.
It was only their third day on campus, but many were already feeling burnt out.
“They run us ragged. Like 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., you're doing stuff,” first-year Clare O’Sullivan said. “You get back to your dorm at 10 p.m., you just want to crash, but there's still more events to go to. You feel like you're missing out if you don't go to them.”
On the first floor, piano chords, trombone glissandos and snare drum beats filled the air. The Project Arts music group was hard at work preparing for their Friday showcase, where they’ll perform an arrangement of one of Elvis Presley’s most famous songs, “Hound Dog.”
Starting with the original “Hound Dog,” written by Big Mama Thornton in 1952, the group plans to transition into a chorus and verse from Presley’s version, and then a section from Doja Cat’s “Vegas,” which is inspired by Presley’s.
pArts, one of the prior pre-orientation programs, aims to expose first-years to a variety of art opportunities on campus. Last year’s music group had seven first-years, according to Alan Wang, a sophomore and group leader. This year, participant counts have more than doubled.
In the front of the room, first-years Daniel Rodriguez-Florido and Andrew Spong squeezed onto a piano bench, four hands churning blues scales out from one keyboard. They were creating the piano accompaniment for the Big Mama Thornton portion of the performance.
Rodriguez-Florido was brutally honest about their progress. “Yesterday we had nothing, but today we have a starting point,” he said.
“I taught this man the blues scale yesterday!” Spong laughed. “Yesterday I was really worried, but it's getting better and better today.”
Both Rodriguez-Florido and Spango are Pratt students. But they’re also experienced piano players and joined pArts because they wanted a brief break before they dive into their STEM-heavy course loads.
“I wanted to do something not engineering because I'm gonna be doing it for four years,” Rodriguez-Florido said. But after pArts, he’s considering playing in a chamber group at Duke.
The pair continued to run through blues scales, chuckling at a joke one cracked.
Social Sciences, 11 a.m.
It was a week before the first day of classes, but school seemed like it was already in session in Project Media’s photography workshop. Dozens of first-year students and orientation leaders filed into a lecture hall to learn from University Communications multimedia producers Jared Lazarus and Megan Mendenhall.
The room fell silent as Lazarus and Mendenhall pulled up a presentation on composition and portraiture. Find diagonal lines. Pay attention to the rule of thirds. Always aim for good light, aesthetics and a captivating moment.
The occasional shutter of Lazarus’ camera broke through the hum of Mendenhall’s voice as he photographed the students. By the end of the program, designed for first-years to gain hands-on experience with different media forms and learn about the media opportunities Duke offers, students will create their own documentation of their O-week experience.
After a half-hour presentation, 60 first-years burst into the humid Durham air, iPhone cameras in hand. Split into smaller groups, they meandered through campus in search of scenes to photograph.
One gathered under Crowell’s clocktower. Junior Amber Smith, the group’s orientation leader, pointed to the diagonal lines on the quad’s slanted roofs. Her group plans on creating TikToks as their O-week commemoration project.
First-year Valentina Garbelotto, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, said she would send her project to her parents back home.
“It’ll be kind of like they’re here with me,” she said. pMedia was Garbelotto’s first choice—she plans on majoring in English and pursuing journalism, and the program has allowed her to learn about media-related activities she’d like to join.
The group surveyed the quad once more, declared it devoid of any more photo opportunities, then began walking to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens for lunch.
Garbelotto hadn’t seen campus before arriving on Saturday, choosing Duke in what she calls a leap of faith. She commended Smith and other program leaders on helping first-years get familiar with the sprawling grounds and cultivate tight-knit relationships, all before the first day of classes.
Suddenly, Smith stopped in her tracks.
“Oh, there’s a puddle!” she said, whipping out her phone as she crouched next to it. The first-years followed suit, taking turns as they flipped their phones upside down to capture a reflection of Duke’s iconic archways in the still water.
Gray Building, 2 p.m.
First-years Joshua Andrews, Ritwik Bhattacharjee and Philip Yi crowded around one laptop. They were engrossed in Snappy Maps, a game where the player drags and drops all 50 states onto a blank map of the United States to win.
Yi stared deep in thought at the computer screen. “Wait. Where’s Maryland?” he asked.
“Duuuude! Be serious!” Andrews groaned, laughing.
Thankfully, geography is not the theme of their orientation program—Andrews, Bhattacharjee and Yi are part of Project SEED (Science & Engineering Exploration in Durham), one of the new programs. They were waiting for a guest lecture with Hai Li, professor in electrical and computer engineering.
All three first-years are in Pratt. Andrews chose pSEED because he is considering jobs in STEM.
“It seemed the best to help me get a leg up in advancing my career,” he said.
Bhattacharjee appreciates how he can meet many of his Pratt classmates through the program — there are roughly 300 Pratt students in the class so pSEED allows them to “build a tight knit community.”
In addition to guest lectures, SEEDlings will tour Duke’s technological centers like the Smart Home as well as local energy startups like Greenway Transit. They’ve also had fierce competitions by seeing who can build the highest tower using noodles and marshmallows.
pSEED was originally an extension of DukeLIFE’s (Lower Income, First Generation Engagement) STEM pre-matriculation program. DukeLIFE made the decision to open up the orientation track to any incoming student interested in STEM fields.
The Devil’s Krafthouse, 8:00 p.m.
For the first time since March Madness, The Devil’s Krafthouse was packed with rowdy Duke students focused around one all-important screen. But this time, the screens weren’t projecting Paolo Banchero winking into the camera while up by five in the Sweet Sixteen game. It was time for Project Play’s sports trivia.
First-year Ben Childress, decked out in a Duke Athletics t-shirt, leaned into his group’s table and joked that trivia would “get [them] ready for tenting.”
pPlay, designed to expose first-years to wellness and athletics at Duke, had raised the trivia stakes—the winning group will secure the first spot in the freshman walk-up line for the freshman basketball game later this semester.
When the first set of questions asked for the weight of a golf ball, Childress’ group turned to the golf player at the table. He guessed 12 ounces. The correct answer? 1.62 ounces.
No matter. The group had bigger matches to win later in the week: schoolyard basketball games against the men’s basketball team.
Duke Chapel, 8:30 p.m.
Twelve hours later, another group of first-years and their program leaders stood on the grassy patch at the base of the Chapel. Sunset was giving way to the ink-colored night.
One student began clapping, slowly at first. The rest followed, each clap faster than the last, until they devolved into whoops and cheers.
“Duke! Duke! Duke!” they chanted, their voices echoing across Abele Quad and electrifying the entirety of West Campus.
Then they dispersed, still laughing and clapping, heading to the bus stop, onto the C1 and back to their dorms on East Campus.
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Kathryn Thomas is a Trinity junior and news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.
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 is a Trinity junior and digital strategy director of The Chronicle's 119th volume. She was previously managing editor for Volume 118.
Ishani Raha is a Pratt junior and a senior editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.