Colin Kaeo

The weather was easy—mid-seventies and pleasantly sunny—and the windows were down as the three friends departed West Campus in a cramped Uber backseat, headed for the Eno River.

It had been an intense accelerated semester, an unyielding juggernaut of labs and quizzes and projects that left little time to be a person. Colin Kaeo had slogged through it with a fractured pinkie—courtesy of a hardthrown football at the end of winter break—rising to the challenge of his coursework without the full use of his dominant hand or even the ability to unwind by playing his clarinet. Yet here was a moment of reprieve! Here was a two-day break on March 9 and 10, “wellness days” that had been added to Duke’s academic calendar. And here were Kaeo and two friends heading for the woods to make the most of it.

“The night before, if you would have asked me what I was doing on the first wellness day, I would have no idea,” Kaeo recalls. “That morning, we just decided to go [to Eno River State Park] and do a little bit of hiking.”

Anticipation grew as the friends approached the Eno. Immediately upon arrival, Kaeo found the perfect hiking stick. Soon the three were on the banks of the river itself, watching a dozen turtles sun themselves on a fallen tree. Even though this was Kaeo’s second semester at Duke, the lifelong Texan felt like he was finally experiencing North Carolina—and he liked it.

Granted, neither of the two semesters comprising Kaeo’s Duke experience thus far were conducive to getting to know the area. Kaeo is part of a class like no other: Not only will he graduate in 2024—Duke’s centennial year—but he and his classmates’ entire freshman year was altered and defined by COVID-19 precautions. Fall ’20 and spring ’21 were compressed semesters without roommates, without indoor dining or in-person events, and with many classes held virtually. There wasn’t even a spring break: in its place, those wellness days—a two-day break in March, as well as an additional optional (though encouraged) day off on April 12. 

And while Kaeo’s Eno hike was no doubt a reprieve, the rising sophomore recognizes that future semesters won’t be as frantic.

“I’m kind of sad that I didn’t get to do more fun things aside from school,” he admits. “At the same time, I feel good about the work I did this semester and what I’ve accomplished academically.”

Organic Chemistry II, for instance, was far more fulfilling than Kaeo expected, which he credits to Charlie Cox’s teaching style and course design. The associate professor of the practice of chemistry communicated the material clearly and efficiently, and the pace of the course, though fast, felt manageable. “He’s probably one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” says Kaeo.

Like he did in the fall, Kaeo met friends in his classes (some of whom this Pratt student recognized or knew from his first semester). He began studying with classmates from his linear algebra and molecular biology courses. Sure, being in the same room (albeit masked and distanced) helped with comprehension, but it also kept yet another COVID-dominated semester from getting too lonely.

As the spring semester wrapped up, the university was easing outdoor mask requirements, opening Duke Gardens to the university community, and vaccinating students—an excited Kaeo included. Summer brings the tantalizing possibility of a Mexico trip with friends (to make up for a 2020 trip that was canceled by COVID). And after summer there’s the promise of a new normal for Kaeo. After a freshman year living solo in Blackwell on East Campus, his sophomore assignment to Crowell comes as a relief—he’ll get something every Duke class except the centennials has taken for granted: a roommate.

“We got our housing assignments [for fall ’21], and I’m rooming with one of my partners who was in my First Year Design group,” Kaeo says. “Across the hall from us are the other two guys who were in the group.

“I’m excited about that,” he continues, “to have friends—good friends—living right close to each other.” 

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