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One fainting, dozens-long lines and over 100,000 packages: Behind the strain on Duke’s mailbox center

First-year Tara Singh’s first day of classes at Duke involved a long line, a loss of consciousness and her least favorite place on campus — the student mailbox center. 

Singh was one of dozens of students waiting to pick up a package. For over 40 minutes, she inched forward, huddling against the wall in the basement of the Bryan Center.

“There's not much ventilation down there. When I reached the front of the line, I started feeling really dizzy,” Singh said. 

She closed her eyes. When she woke up, she found herself on the floor. Upperclassmen were staring at her. 

“I hadn’t had any classes that day,” she said. “That was my very first Duke experience.”

While few other students have lost consciousness, many have felt the frustration of waiting up to an hour for medical necessities or a favorite pair of jean shorts left at home. And before those packages can be picked up, it takes days for them to be processed through Duke's mail services after delivery. 

At the front of the line on a September afternoon, sophomore Charlotte Gehring appeared both triumphant and weary. She was eager to receive textbooks and other materials for classes that she had not yet received due to processing delays. 

“I had a book for a class that I needed that didn't come until we had finished a good chunk of the book. And that was a bummer,” Gehring said. 

Further up the line, first-year Molly Lyons was waiting for a package containing $450 worth of clothes from Urban Outfitters, an order she had placed two weeks ago. Like many first-years, she’d been caught off guard by Durham's summer humidity and had needed to adjust her wardrobe.

Just behind Lyons, sophomore Fidel Bermudez Jr. was waiting for his mini fridge, which he needed in order to refrigerate his contacts. The appliance had arrived at the mailbox center six days before he received the notification to pick it up. 

For the past couple of weeks, he had been “putting [his] contacts in an insulated water bottle filled with ice.” 

Though the beginning of the year is always a busy time for the mailbox center, package processing delays were heightened by a University-wide change in the package delivery system two years ago, according to Postmaster Edward De La Garza.

Couriers used to deliver directly to dorms, but because of the pandemic, the Central Mail Processing Center, which is off campus, began receiving packages from FedEx, UPS, DHL, Amazon and other carriers in addition to USPS. This increased the package intake volume by 34%, according to De La Garza. 

“It's impacted us immensely, as far as the volumes and turnaround times,” he said.

Students, who receive 80% of the packages from the processing center, say they understand that the volume of mail has put a strain on mailroom employees. 

“I think that they’re understaffed and I feel really badly for the staff. It’s not their fault,” said sophomore Amy Fulton as she joined the line to wait for a pair of shorts. “I just really hope they get it sorted out … I shouldn't have to block out an hour of my day to come get a package.”

Students feel that wait times have felt longer than ever, which makes sense when comparing this year’s intake to years past.

In 2021, the mailbox center processed 136,000 total packages, according to De La Garza. From this January to Sept. 22, they’ve already processed 108,000 — three and a half months left in the year and no signs of slowing down. 

De La Garza and his staff have been “working feverishly to create efficiencies.” During the first month of this school year, staff worked an extra hour a day on weekdays and came in on Saturdays. De La Garza has also hired temps and student workers, including some through federal work-study, to help with the influx.

De La Garza also spearheaded an initiative to bring Amazon lockers directly to Duke. He recently obtained approval to install one on East Campus and one on West Campus by the end of the year, and is also “shooting for the possibility of setting up a mail center on East Campus.”

“We are in dire need of more space and we are at capacity as well,” De La Garza wrote in an email. 

De La Garza urged students to come to the mailroom as soon as possible to pick up their packages after receiving the notification. Doing so helps free up shelf space so that more packages can be processed. One student had waited so long that by the time they arrived, they had 33 packages, De La Garza recalled. 

But until packed lines are a distant memory, heading to the mailroom as soon as it opens at 8:30 a.m. or avoiding popular class end times might be students’ best solutions.


Sevana Wenn | Features Managing Editor

Sevana Wenn is a Trinity sophomore and features managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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