This is not normal.
I think the last time Duke felt normal, I was wearing a kangaroo suit waving the stuffed joey or baby kangaroo that came with the costume and screaming at the top of my lungs, as Duke beat UNC in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
I was only micrometers away from my other kangaroo friends, as we celebrated weeks of tenting and a much-anticipated victory.
That feeling of being one part of a collective community is how I like to think we started off our journey.
It was August of 2017, when all 1700 students of the first-year undergraduate class had to squeeze into a painted white outline of “2021” on the East Campus quad grass. All of us shoulder to shoulder, exchanging innumerable microbes, most definitely breathing, coughing, and sneezing in each other’s faces.
It’s crazy that in that first moment when we were all so physically close, we had no clue of the stories, personalities and friendships waiting for us. And today, after four years of trying and celebratory moments, we share an emotional closeness, although physically apart.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we got from there to here. So today, regardless of the six feet distance, I hope you’ll join me in my reminiscence.
Do you all remember Price Palooza? In just the first couple weeks at Duke, we were spoiled with shrimp cocktail ice sculptures, a Ferris wheel, and state fair-worthy fried Oreos. My friends, now turned best friends, and I even got matching temporary tattoos of President Price’s face.
Together, we migrated to West Campus, reveling in the abundance of food points, toiled through sophomore slump, tented, went abroad, secured internships, and then suddenly, in March of 2020, we received a slew of emails that ended our junior spring and residential Duke campus experience as we’d known it.
Now comes the heartfelt shoutout to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, colloquially known as SARS-CoV-2.
We were scattered, spread all across the world. Some of us back at home, some of us stuck on campus, some of us unable to fly to our families.
And our trusty companion through it all, Zoom technologies, struggled to single-handedly maintain our relationships, projects and futures we worked so hard to build.
Our community, once catalyzed by repeated experiences of physical proximity, grew virally instead.
As we returned to classes in the fall, we faced a semester like no other. Instead of mystery illnesses contracted at Shooters, we collectively suffered from screen fatigue and social deprivation.
“Let’s grab a meal” turned into “I’ll send you my meeting link at 12” and group projects turned into “Joining breakout room 2.”
It’s quite important to note here that we, the Class of 2021, had it way harder than the Class of 2020, no matter what Zoom Memes for Self-Quaranteens had to say.
I like to think that this change in course introduced a new a required course – COV-Ed. This course was novel, if you will. A class with no defined syllabus, assignments, some definite testing, and an abundance of stress.
COV-Ed provided a stellar education. Maybe not necessarily through the timed quizzes over the Sakai or the classes we turned our videos off for.
The course objectives were not clear until recently but for me turned-out to be character and community.
A favorite quote of mine by spiritual leader, Sathya Sai, sums up the first.
“The end of wisdom is freedom. The end of culture is perfection. The end of knowledge is love. The end of education is character.” (Sathya Sai Baba).
Over our four years, especially these last two, we were forced to learn how to take care of ourselves, how to make trying sacrifices, how to set boundaries, how to ask for help and how to care for one another.
Over our four years, we built character.
By no means is our education complete, but thinking back to my first-year self, I now feel more resilient – maybe it’s the antibodies, or possibly the experience that Duke embodies.
And now to community.
Have you noticed that after delivering stern instructions and updates on COVID violations, our administrators still sign emails, “Go Duke!”
Because through the ups and downs, the good decisions and the bad decisions, whether we are shoulder to shoulder or not, we will always be a Duke something – a Duke student, a Duke alum, a Duke community.
A group of people united through common struggles with similar stories bonding people together over time, no matter the distance.
I now believe Duke is not only the swarm of FAC’s that helped us move in as first-years, the unbelievable oatmeal at Div Café, or the forever fear of any siren meaning a tent check.
It’s the higher standard of character we hold ourselves and each other to, creating this one-of-a-kind community that bleeds deep blue.
Today, we may not be packed like sardines on the East Campus Quad or in Cameron’s student section.
And while the required space between us has grown, I like to think it is filled and will continue to fill with all of our accomplishments, learnings, and identities we will build.
Class of 2021, I would have never wanted to paint my face white and blue, make it through the 1pm lunch rush in WU, or stick white plastic Q-tips up my nose every week with anyone else but you.
Thank you and congratulations!