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Terri O'Neal - Duke University

November 2015

Terri O'Neal Domesstic ExhangeParticipating in the Spelman Domestic Exchange Program at Duke University has been a wonderful experience for me. Through this program, I have been afforded the unique opportunity to immerse myself in a completely different academic community and culture. Being given the chance to thrive in multiple academic and social spaces as an undergrad is what will make my holistic time at Spelman more memorable.

While at Duke, I embarked on a journey of discovering new facets about myself and I participated in a new community of scholars. The more time I spend walking the grounds of Duke, the more I feel like I am further developing my educational, social and personal proficiency.

Reflecting on my experience, I will say it was a challenge shifting from Spelman to Duke. The culture of a predominantly white, large and co-ed institution differs from that of historically black, small, liberal arts women's institution. The gated community at Spelman College, where  you can walk from one side of the campus to the other in five minutes, did not prepare me for Duke’s expansive campuses.

At Duke, there are three campuses -- East, West and Central. Since the campus is so large, there are even transit vehicles that take students to all three campuses and everywhere in between. During the first week of classes, I did not understand how to ride the transit system, so I walked. In fact, I walked a lot. I guess it was good for exercise, but more importantly, I learned a lot about the Duke campus.

No, I am not an expert yet, but by getting lost, I was actually able to learn and remember where I was and how to get to my intended destination. Let's call this process "exploring." This exploration allowed me to learn from my mistakes and grow. 

I live on Central Campus in an apartment with a roommate. My roommate, Kaitlyn, is a senior art major and she was very welcoming and honored to share my unique experience. On West Campus, all of the buildings look the same. It is the quintessential Gothic wonderland which makes it seem as if I stepped onto Hogwarts’s School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. The buildings are made of grey and blue stone and are decorated with moss. Anyone who walks on the Duke West campus can tell that there is a strong historical presence with Duke Chapel at its focal point, and it strongly influences the architecture

The Chapel is currently undergoing construction, however, that does not distract from its magnificence. I would describe the Duke West campus as hauntingly beautiful and slightly eerie at night. In contrast, Duke’s East campus is more conservative. The buildings are tan with red brick, short, spread out and adorned with flower wreathes.

As a future anthropologist, exploring the material culture/architecture of the buildings, was really exciting. Moreover, learning the cultural history of the two campuses gave me a clear picture of the stark differences between the campuses. For example, Duke was originally an all male institution, and it was located on what is now referred to as West Campus. East Campus was built when the women’s college was created. There is a mile-long expanse dividing the East and West campuses because the original idea was to keep the men and women separate. As such, the architecture even mimics traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity.

West Campus boasts characteristics of a strong and active masculine presence. This is evidenced in the symbolic gestures towards parts of the male anatomy. East Campus contains more docile and fragile artistic attributes. This is evidenced by the  East Campus landscape which was constructed to resemble the female reproductive system. These are the things that I began to notice while I walked from place to place.

Today, and for some time now, both campuses are occupied by both male and female students, and there are even co-ed dormitories.  However, the historical landscape governs the activity on each campus. For instance, West Campus holds buildings for natural sciences, theology and the football stadium. While East Campus is home to buildings for dance training, visual arts and music – educational opportunities that were traditionally only offered to women. I believe it is important to learn the history of any place that I encounter, and to view it through a culturally-relative lens.

Meeting Dean Sabrina Thomas, Ph.D., was a great way to initiate my experience. On my way to my cognitive psychology class, I stumbled into the Allen building where I saw Dean Thomas' office. She is the person responsible for accepting me into the exchange program at Duke. After class, I returned to the Allen building in hopes of meeting with Dean Thomas.

Prior to our meeting, I had only interacted with Dean Thomas via email. When I arrived in her office, I was thrilled to have some prior familiarity with someone at this "strange" place. It was not until five minutes into the conversation that I realized Dean Thomas had no idea who I was. She thought I attended Duke University and was interested in applying for an exchange to visit Spelman College. I had a Spelman t-shirt on and I guess she assumed I was just excited about the exchange program.

Once I realized this, I quickly clarified who I was and what I was doing at Duke University.  Her whole demeanor changed as she came to realize that I was actually from Spelman. We laughed the misunderstanding off and then the conversation turned serious as I practically gave her my whole life story and a brief synopsis of who I am.

Dean Thomas was very warm yet authoritative in expressing the seriousness of this opportunity and she grilled me so I would fully understand the expectations I should have of myself as a young scholar and future Ph.D. program applicant. Perhaps it was because she was a black woman with a doctorate, but Dean Thomas did more for me during that conversation than she probably knows.

She helped put me at ease because after our conversation, I realized I have in my corner a caring person whose attitude mirrors the high expectations I have come to appreciate, expect and admire from members of the Spelman College community.  Dean Thomas was even more intrigued when I told her I was a Mellon Fellow. She then proceeded to introduce me to Duke's Mellon Mays representative, Ms. Deborah Wahl. Connecting with the Duke Mellon fellows has been another avenue by which I have been able to create a familiar space at Duke.

The academic transition at Duke has been going well, and I was well prepared for the academic rigor thanks to Spelman. As a student eager to learn all I can, I find my classes very interesting and a useful way of putting my critical thinking skills to work.

While at Duke, I have a goal of attaining strong relationships with at least three tenured professors so I can develop long-term relationships with them. I also hope to secure a recommendation letter from at least one of them. When I apply for Ph.D. programs at the culmination of my Spelman career, I want it to be clear that I was able to adjust and make my presence known academically. In addition to my courses, I am using this experience to continue to inform my Mellon research and future senior thesis project. The resources at Duke are amazing and their libraries are beyond anything I could have imagined. I am constantly in the library for hours at a time to read, think, write notes, and develop ideas.

As a junior in college, I have grown to appreciate and understand the importance of balancing my holistic, mental and physical health as well as my academic success.  I have established and will continue to maintain a healthy balance of research, academic courses, social interaction, and self-care. In addition to work, I enjoy reading for fun, doing yoga, having midnight meditation, cooking, creating things with my sewing machine, doing my hair, writing in my journal, and taking pictures and videos to document my experience.

I attended the first football game of the season and it was really fun. There were so many people!  I have never experienced a typical American college football game conducted on such a large scale. As an eager participant, I purchased a Duke t-shirt to fit in with the other students. There was a lot of cheering, standing, dancing, and eating pizza that day.  I have also attended several theater and dance performances at Duke.

To escape from the stress of college, I often find solace in the Sara P. Duke gardens. The abundance of nature --  flowers, trees, wildlife and fountains, is very calming and peaceful. I usually turn my phone on silent so I can be one with the earth.  It is in these gardens that I can re-center and focus on my short term and long-term goals. I can take a moment to relish in the magic of new beginnings and the refreshing commencement of a new journey. I am grateful for the opportunity  to continue working on myself and uncovering new parts of me.


Terri O'Neal Domesstic Exhange
Terri O'Neal Domesstic Exhange