opeYou’re sitting on the C1 at the West campus bus stop casually scrolling through your Instagram feed. You sense a body approaching the empty seat beside you and look up to see who it is.
Shit…it’s that guy you haven’t talked to since Writing 101. You’re not really friends, but there’s just enough connection that you have to make small talk for the 7 minute journey to East. After an awkward smile and a brief “Hey! How are you?” comes the perfunctory: “So…what classes are you taking this semester?”
We’ve all had that painful conversation, but the only thing that can make it worse is my current response:
“Actually, I’m in a DukeImmerse program.”
With this unexpected comment comes one of a few standard replies:
Reply 1: the confused “Cooool….” followed by a blank stare that reads: “I low-key have no idea what that is.”
Reply 2: a slight furrowing of the brow coupled with: “What’s that?”
Or finally, for those with vague notions of the program, there is Reply 3: “Where does that one go? How are you going to make up the work in your other classes when you’re gone?”
All of this is to say that people don’t really know what DukeImmerse is or how to respond to the fact that I’m doing it. I’ll get more into the details of my program later, but before that I have some questions of my own:
Aren’t programs like DukeImmerse the reason we all wanted to go to Duke to begin with? Wasn’t college supposed to be a place where we could take advantage of unique academic opportunities and engage in the world around us? If so, why are these programs often so mysterious and seldom made use of?
These are big questions without easy answers. Indeed, each such program has a specific set of factors that impact its popularity and accessibility. I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of the myriad of opportunities Duke has to offer, but I have had the chance to participate in Focus, DukeEngage, Bass Connections, and DukeImmerse. And it is from my experiences I hope to expound upon the choice environment that so greatly impacts our decisions.
As a senior in high school trying to figure out what to do with my first semester, the size and scale of Duke was totally overwhelming. I heard a lot about Focus on social media and in Duke’s post-acceptance info packets, and I thought it would be a great way to give my first semester some larger purpose. After looking through the various options, I decided to apply for Kenan’s ethics cluster.
Focus was easily the best decision of my Duke career. It cut down the indomitable course catalog, gave me an immediate group of friends that shared my interests, provided access to exceptional professors, and opened doors to many of the programs I have gone on to do.
Because it was early in my career, I wasn’t worried about my graduation requirements and actually had the ability to take advantage of it. But others with different academic interests would probably be unimpressed by the lack of STEM-related clusters. Sorry about that Prattstars.
Duke loves to talk about how unique and awesome DukeEngage is. It’s impossible to not have heard about it. I mean, come December, your Facebook newsfeed is bombarded by kids who haven’t been so excited to announce their success to the world since they got into Duke in the first place.
But this is an instance where the program actually lives up to the hype. Who wouldn’t want to travel, for free, to a new place and do work they find meaningful? With all the pressure to ‘find something to do this summer,’ applying was a no brainer.
Having gone through the Dublin program, I would recommend every Duke student take this opportunity seriously.
What is Bass Connections? I still can’t really answer that question, and I’m on a team. According to their website, it’s “a university-wide initiative that brings together faculty and students to explore real-world issues in interdisciplinary research teams”-whatever that string of buzzwords means.
That’s the thing about Bass. On the one hand, any student of any major can find a research opportunity that appeals to their interests. On the other hand, the sheer amount of teams, breadth of goals, and diversity of research means that there isn’t much tying the program together as a single entity.
There’s also real confusion about how and why to get involved. I only heard about it when a professor invited me to be on a team. I didn’t even know it counted for an academic credit until after I was enrolled. As long as Bass remains such an opaque program, it will continue to be underutilized.
And that brings me to where we started. DukeImmerse is truly an amazing program. As part of the Uprooted/Rerouted cohort, I get to have compelling conversations each day with five other students as we tackle complex issues of global displacement through the lens of four different but interrelated courses. Because none of us take other classes, we will get to travel to Amman, Jordan tomorrow to see how the theory we discuss compares to the lived experience of refugees.
But Immerse isn’t a perfect program. There is very little information about it, and having a name so similar to DukeEngage means that the two are often conflated. On top of that, all three Immerse programs are highly focused on the social sciences.
I knew about Uprooted/Rerouted because of my Focus and literally planned the rest of my Duke career around doing it. On the other end of spectrum, a girl in the group only heard about the program days before the application closed. At the cost of summer school and a very prescribed future schedule, she will be able to complete Immerse and her Pre-med requirements while graduating on time. To her, the program is worth such a sacrifice.
Taking these experiences as a whole, two majors truths emerge. First, while Duke does have some truly incredible academic programs, they are neither evenly distributed across interests nor equally available to all students. It’s just flat out easier to do what I’ve done as a Pub Pol major than as a STEM major.
The second point is a qualification of that statement. It’s easy to complain about larger, restrictive academics structures and do only those programs, like Focus and DukeEngage, which are the easiest to fit in. It’s much harder to admit that we are often the greatest impediment to our own participation in less popular programs.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to feel the weight of social pressure to make our lives fit within the traditional confines of a “successful” college career. Picking a major, joining clubs, making friends, and figuring out our futures become so important that we don’t quite get around to doing all those cool things we talked about in our “Why Duke?” essays. We become so obsessed with “playing the game” that we don’t let ourselves take advantage of what is around us.
Instead, we tell ourselves convenient white lies like: “I don’t have enough time to dig around for programs like Bass Connections” or “DukeImmerse sounds cool, but I just don’t have space to fit it in” without going to the necessary effort to see if these statements are really true. Going against the grain takes lots of searching and planning. There’s just no getting around that.
Maybe these programs have nothing to do with your academic interests and goals. But that’s not the point. Be it academic tracks like Program II and an Interdepartmental Major, programs like the Marine Lab and study abroad, or even groups like Duke Engineers for International Development (DEID), this place is full of unique opportunities that will challenge you to grow as a scholar and a person.
The structural barriers and social pressure that often disincentivize participation in these programs aren’t going anywhere. But what can change is our commitment to utilizing the many resources that surround us. If there is something you are passionate about, I bet there is an incredible program that will let you engage in that work. You just have to find it and have the courage to actually make it happen.
Trust me, it’s worth it.