The idea of Duke’s fall break has always perplexed me. Spring break makes sense; even though it isn’t usually positioned around Easter or another holiday, it marks pretty evenly the middle of the second semester, and gives a long enough pause from classes and assignments to do something. Whether that be to go somewhere, get ahead on your work or just relax for a while, spring break at least lets you breathe.
Inherently, fall break isn’t a horrible idea, but in practice it falls rather short. For whatever reason we only get off about one total week of classes per semester, so the presence of a fall break makes Thanksgiving break shorter, giving students and faculty two mediocre pauses rather than one good one.
Fall break’s justification is also its side effect: midterms. We have fall break to recover from the preceding midterms, but we have these midterms all at the same time because fall break is a natural barrier between segments of course material. With such a short break, even if you leave, your assignments don’t really pause. There’s a difference between having no class and having a break.
Last year I stayed on campus for both fall and Thanksgiving breaks, because of COVID concerns and travel costs, and it looks like the same will be true of this semester. Staying on campus was obviously not as nice as visiting home or going on a short vacation might have been, but the actions of the university only made things worse. For example, there were not any on-campus dining options throughout Thanksgiving day, and very limited ones for the rest of the break. This year, I imagine there will be more of the same.
On the First-Year Dining page, it says that freshmen will not get Marketplace swipes for dinner Friday, October 7th through breakfast Tuesday, October 11th, nor breakfast Wednesday, November 23rd through breakfast Sunday, November 27th. While this is nice for the Marketplace workers for getting a bit of a break as well, freshman staying here will have to figure out what to do about those missing meals; with the massive food inflation across campus, relying on food points won’t be a perfect solution.
Here’s the thing: if you’re staying on campus for the breaks, there’s a reason for it. Maybe home is too far, maybe you can’t afford to go anywhere or maybe you just want a mental health break instead of a stressful half-week of travel. Not only can you not go anywhere while seeing many of your peers on fancy weekend trips or flying home to California for a long weekend, but you have to plan ahead for how to get food and navigate campus with limited facility hours and bus routes. Not to mention that every conversation before and after a break revolves around what you’re planning to do or did do.
The icing on the cake is that parents' weekend is a week after fall break, and I imagine there’s a lot of overlap between people staying here for the break and also not having their parents visit the next weekend. It’s a further reminder of the amount of privilege at Duke for the students whose families can’t justify visiting. The negatives of not leaving for breaks are compounded on the students who are already disadvantaged—the setup of the fall semester breaks is classist, to say the least.
Since coming here, the whole academic calendar situation has confused me. Last summer was absurdly long—there were about seventeen weeks off, practically the entirety of May through August. All through that time, Duke was able to host, in addition to summer session, a wide variety of camps and programs for high schoolers willing to shell out whatever money Duke wanted to charge. The more time us students spend on campus, the less time anyone else can. I don’t know if this is why Duke tries to minimize the total time us students are here for the academic year, but it seems a tad suspicious. Why can’t we have two weeks off during the semesters and a fifteen-week summer?
Staying here for fall break isn’t horrible—it is a piddly two days off, after all—but Thanksgiving is another story. Perhaps if we had a week-long Thanksgiving break—or even one week off for fall break and another for turkey day—it would feel worth it to fly home for the holiday, but it’s really hard to justify spending upwards of $400 to fly home for maybe three full days with my family.
Especially since the majority of students at Duke do not live in North Carolina, the presence of such a short break doesn’t make the same amount of sense it does at a state school, like UNC, at which students could a lot more easily drive home for an extended weekend. Perhaps it’s a lazy institutional attempt to provide the appearance of caring about giving students a mental break, by implementing a practice that some other colleges have.
I might understand the odd length more if it overlapped a holiday—perhaps Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as a guest column suggested—or if they were days in addition to rather than subtracted from Thanksgiving break. Perhaps we could have a couple of random long weekends sprinkled throughout the semester, or start earlier, having winter break begin at Thanksgiving and end at New Years, with a week long fall break in the middle (although, knowing us, I fear too long of a break would lead to the necessity of “winternships”).
Duke undeniably lives up to its work hard, play hard culture, but the presence of two tiny breaks goes a bit too far. We get time off, but nowhere near long enough to actually relax. If you travel, you’ll probably end up farther behind work-wise than you started. If you don’t, you feel the effects of a campus that doesn’t really want you there. If Duke wants to stick with the presence of two tiny breaks in the fall, they should provide resources for the students who don’t have much of a choice but to be here; at the very least they shouldn’t add to the food insecurity that so many students already feel. Otherwise, let’s make fall break an actual break or abolish it entirely.
Heidi Smith is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternating Tuesdays.
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