Life of a First-Year Intern: Introduction to Duke Academics


By: Casey Tissue, Trinity Class of 2016

This is my second blog post now, and I'm writing as an intern with the Parent and Family Programs.  My name is Casey, and I'm a second semester freshman here at Duke.  In my last post I explained some of the challenges of Orientation Week as well as finding groups and organizations that I wanted to be a part of on campus.

After Orientation Week, classes started, and my schedule began to finally have an organized pattern.  I was in the Power of Language Focus program, which automatically placed two classes in my schedule called "The Languages of Art," and "Language and Identity."  A Focus Program is an academic option freshman have as part of their first semester.  There are several different topics in the Focus Program, ranging from ethics to neuroscience to the history of freedom. Each topic has a list of classes that only students in that specific program can take, and the students in each topic live together in the same dorm to help build a sense of community.  When I applied to participate in the program in May, I chose the Power of Language topic.  After choosing this, I then had to examine the four classes that made up the program of the Power of Language and rank them according to my preference.  I would take two of those classes my first semester as well as attend a weekly dinner with the professors and other students in all four classes.


I also took a level 300 Spanish Writing class, as well as Math 122L (Calculus II with Applications).  I felt that I had a good balance among subjects, and although math was a struggle for me, I wouldn't change my decision to take it.  About halfway through the first semester, I began hearing statements made about the math program at Duke.  My classmates said, "Math 122L is the most failed class at Duke," and upperclassmen told me that math at Duke was one of the hardest subjects.  What had I gotten myself into?

 Thankfully, there was a math help room on East Campus.  After spending several hours per week there, and another several in the library actually reading a math textbook, I was able to manage the class.  Over Christmas break, our final grades were posted online, and I was incredibly nervous to see what I had received.  When I found out I earned an A, I felt extremely accomplished.  I couldn't stop talking about it for days!  My family and friends all congratulated me, after having heard numerous complaints from me about the difficulty of the class all throughout the semester. I've never been so proud of my work in a class! That was the hardest I have ever had to work for an A, but it was also the happiest I've ever been about any grade.  I've found that a few college classes are easier than what I had in high school, and many are most definitely not.  However, I am far more satisfied in college with my difficult classes because of the amount of effort it takes to excel.  Through working harder, I ultimately learn more material and gain a greater appreciation of the educational opportunities at Duke. To sum up my first semester, I've found that academics in high school are different than college in four ways: First, I transferred from having nine class periods a day (and eight actual classes) to having only four classes total, and at most three in one day.  The class periods in college are almost twice as long as they were in high school, and the classes only meet two or three times a week in general (my math class was four times a week).  Because of this, college class time is much more intense; the instructors have a certain amount of material to cover each week and they only have two chances to do that.  It also means that I need to pay attention longer, which is a skill I had to seriously improve upon in my first semester.   Second, there are fewer assignments.  However, that does not mean less work.  It simply means that I work harder and longer on a single assignment rather than spreading my time and effort over several projects.   For example, in "The Languages of Art" my grade was broken into five parts.  20%  was in-class participation, 20% was a five page paper, 20% was another five page paper, and 40% was a ten page final essay.  The pressure of writing that last essay was greater than almost any assignment I had in high school.  It was worth nearly half of my grade, and I knew I had to write it well.  There is no extra credit, as far as my classes have shown, and there are no superfluous assignments or easy "busy work" to help boost a bad grade.  In my math class, we had a few homework quizzes and some computer program assignments to turn in.  Other than that, though, our grade was mostly based on three in-class tests, and a final exam at the end of the term. Third, college has more freedom.  In "The Languages of Art" my professor met with each student individually to discuss specifically what each of us would be researching for our final project.  Unlike in high school where usually my teachers chose the topics, in college my professor let us pick from just about anything in the entire world of art.  I had a hard time figuring out where to begin, but ultimately I was glad for the freedom.  While researching about my project on the Colosseum, I actually enjoyed doing the work because it was exciting and interesting to me. And fourth, the office hours in college are much different than in high school.  From ninth through twelfth grade, I arrived at school at 7:30 almost every day.  From 7:30 to 7:55, I had a chance to visit my teachers' classrooms in the morning to ask for help (and occasionally I stayed after school).  It was relatively easy to find my teachers in the building, as they were usually in their own classroom or in their designated staff office room.  However, in college "office hours" mean something different.  The professor's office is not the classroom, and is only open at specific hours during the week, which he or she chooses.  So, when I needed to speak to my Spanish professor, I first had to find out when his office hours were, and then actually find his office.  I eventually learned that emailing often works better.  Actually communicating with the professors about getting help is more useful than trying to adjust my schedule to meet with them.  Professors really do have time outside of class to talk to their students; they want to help them succeed and learn, and they appreciate a student's interest in the subject outside of class.  I simply had to change my outlook on the process.  Rather than spontaneously going to a teacher's room in the morning, I now set up a specific time and place to receive the help I need. At Duke, my academic experience has certainly been positive.  I am working harder than I was in high school, but it is not overwhelming.  True, around midterms and finals, some of my friends pulled all-nighters to cram for tests, but for all of last semester I slept eight hours a night.  Better yet, even with enough sleep I still received the grades I think I deserved (good ones!).  Now that I can have complete control of which classes I take, I enjoy the class work more than I ever did before.  I am reading and writing about topics that interest me, and I am motivated to learn skills that will help me in my future career. In my next blog, I'll talk about how I take a break from my studies to have a little fun at Duke and manage my stress.  Academics are important, but making sure I save time to explore the rest of Duke is also a part of the college experience I want.