Square Dancing and Watermelon


Southern hospitality: International students sample sweet slices of melon in 1952.

Southern hospitality: International students sample sweet slices of melon in 1952.
University Archives

Duke’s first class of students from the Institute for International Education’s Summer Orientation Program came to campus in July 1951 from every continent outside of North America, save Antarctica. Over the next seven years, Duke’s International Studies Center served as one of twenty host universities for this program, which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the Army. International students preparing for graduate study at other colleges and universities in the U.S. spent six weeks at Duke readying themselves for American life. They learned everything from how to place a long-distance call to weightier subjects like the American economy and race relations.

The students were thoughtfully integrated into the normal patterns of Duke’s summer session: They lived in dormitories and dined with American students. One Italian physician pursuing further study in her field spent her free time with a group of five American women doctors and delighted her orientation class by sharing the slang expressions she learned, according to a report filed by program administrators that year.

Each year’s class averaged forty graduate students who were divided into five groups based on their English proficiency. Weekdays began with language instruction, including vocabulary tests, readings of comic strips like Blondie and Bringing Up Father, and drills in typical topics of conversation. Prominent local figures like Durham mayor E.J. “Mutt” Evans and Asa T. Spaulding of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company spoke to the students at midmorning assemblies. Afternoons were spent engaged in library research, group sports such as badminton or volleyball, or short trips to local attractions such as the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company factory, the State Capitol in Raleigh, and the North Carolina College for Negroes (now N.C. Central University). In the evenings, students attended informal lectures on American culture, Quadrangle Pictures film screenings, campus-wide sing-alongs, and square-dancing parties—complete with watermelon—at the homes of Duke faculty members, which helped to keep homesickness at bay. Students also accepted weekend-long invitations from local Durham families—usually with connections to a Durham church or women’s organization—to get a glimpse of authentic American family life.

Before departing for their new home institutions, the students reflected upon their experiences in the program. Although there were complaints about the hot, un-airconditioned classrooms and the noisy-at-all-hours men’s dormitories, most students echoed the sentiments of one Iranian student in the 1955 class: “This short period of my life has been as enjoyable and sweet as my golden days of childhood.”



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