The Centennials Year Two: Bentley Choi

The Class of 2024 was always going to be distinct; they are the class that graduates the year of Duke’s centennial. But they also began their college careers during a pandemic, a massive movement for racial justice, and an election marred by violence and misinformation. We’re following four members of the class for four years to see this strange new world through their eyes

Bentley Choi

Bentley Choi is gearing up for a busy semester.

It’s her second year at Duke, and, in classic Blue Devil fashion, she’s taking on a lot. She’s prepping for the LSAT. She’s an R.A. in Edens. She’s finalizing the proposal for a major of her own design. She’s realigning herself from biology and quantitative research to the more qualitative side of public health.

In the background, though, she’s troubled by increasingly desensitized attitudes as COVID mutates and its crisis drags on. She’s trying to keep her bubble small. When we spoke, it was the beginning of September, Duke was re-tightening its masking guidelines after a single week of classes, and when she mentioned summer, it sounded like ages past.

“Summer was really nice,” Choi says, because of “the balance between work, and taking a rest, and getting back on track.”

Choi is one of four Centennials—students whose 2024 graduation will coincide with Duke’s hundredth anniversary— Duke Magazine is shadowing through their time as undergrads. Last year saw the four (Colin Kaeo from suburban Dallas, Brianna Cellini from Durham-adjacent Hillsborough, Matthew O’Stricker from greater Atlanta, and Hanul “Bentley” Choi from Seoul) arrive on and adapt to a COVID-altered campus. Now they are sophomores as the university re-emerges in fits and starts from the depths of the pandemic.

Choi, who has not been home to South Korea since her August 2020 flight into RDU airport, initially thought the centerpiece of summer 2021 would be a coast-to-coast road trip (destination: San Diego). Instead, she landed an internship with Duke Divinity School’s Clergy Health Initiative and took smaller trips, including a memorable introduction to coastal North Carolina. The internship, she says, helped her zero in on her purpose.

“If I hadn’t had her, I don’t know what I would have done,” says Duke Global Health Institute Research program leader Logan Tice, who supervised Choi and six other interns. “I’ve never seen anybody else just understand [the work] so well and do it quickly and carefully.”

Under Tice, Choi cleaned raw data from heart-rate monitors worn by 400 or so Methodist pastors in a stressreduction study, removing erroneous or blank readings. Choi finished this work in a fraction of the expected time, so Tice expanded Choi’s roles to include literature review and socialmedia work.

“When you think about pastors, they touch the lives of so many people,” says Tice. “It’s kind of like the butterfly effect. By making them better, you’re making whole communities better.”

Choi came away from her internship with an appreciation for the stress that pastors carry—all while anchoring the mental health of their congregants. She learned, too, that church is more than a religious gathering place in the South but fills social roles as well.

And she saw more of the South itself. On July 17, Choi met up with a friend who attends East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, and together with one more friend traveled to the coast for a three-day trip. “This was my first time seeing the beach in North Carolina,” she says.

The Seoul-raised Choi, who was shocked by Durham’s comparatively small size a year ago, experienced the rural expanses of eastern North Carolina, where population density is low and cows dot the roadside. In that all-too-brief, all-toooptimistic time after widespread vaccination but before the widespread Delta variant, Choi, following the CDC’s guidance at the time, doesn’t recall wearing a mask the whole trip.

“Whenever I travel, I try to compact all of my plans into one day,” Choi says, describing whirlwind see-it-all visits to New York City. This wasn’t possible in eastern North Carolina, where destinations can be two or four or more hours apart.

Still, she had a memorable visit to New Bern, with its bearthemed public art (sculptures everywhere) and its role as the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola (a touristy museum-slash-shop in a nineteenth-century pharmacy), and then visited the Outer Banks for the first time. But on Outer Banks day, it rained— okay, it poured—and Choi couldn’t see a thing. And if you can’t see a thing, you can’t take photos. And if you can’t take photos, you can’t send them to your family in Korea.

In Choi, Tice saw someone who shrugged off setbacks— someone, for example, who got her wisdom teeth removed over the summer and returned to work almost immediately, all without a car or even a family support network in the same hemisphere. What’s a little rain to a person like that?

“It would be an easy thing to say, ‘I don’t have a car. I don’t have parents here. I don’t have whatever,’ and kind of stay isolated,” Tice says. “But to have that situation and yet be so fully immersed in so many different things I think is really unique.”

Accordingly, and despite the rain, Choi enjoyed the Outer Banks and wants to return someday—during better weather, of course. True, Choi doesn’t care for salt water, but she knows her mom loves the beach, loves to do beach-house stuff. In a more distant someday, a very pandemic-era, once-it’s-safer someday, she’d like to take her parents.

“Once they come for my graduation, we’ll see if we can go,” Choi says.

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