2024 was always going to be distinct for this class.
It was always going to be the class that graduated the year of Duke’s centennial, yet these 1,593 students began their college career in 2020: the year of a massive movement for racial justice in the United States, an election marred by violence and misinformation, and a pandemic that altered society and made fraught any in-person interaction. The Class of 2024 navigates a Duke University that, in some aspects of campus life, those who graduated a mere two years agao would not recognize.
Their first semester at Duke was one without roommates, club sports, football games with fans, concerts—name it, and it was altered. They ate alone in their rooms and attended a mix of virtual and in-person courses in an accelerated semester, which some described as intense. Yet they also made friends and ran for student government and checked out campus restaurants (often in grab-and-go form) and played music. It was challenging and taxing and strange, but memorable and fulfilling—at least according to the four members of the Class of 2024 Duke Magazine will follow through their time at Duke: Bentley Choi, Matthew O’Stricker, Colin Kaeo, and Brianna Cellini.
Their generation is at the forefront of a complex, uncharted era. Between now and Duke’s centennial, we’ll see the strange new world we all inhabit through their eyes.
Bentley Choi didn’t want to stick around campus during the holiday break. It would have been too depressing.
She could have returned home to Korea—sure—but rather than deal with the rigmarole of international travel during the COVID era, she stayed in the U.S. After finals, campus cleared out, leaving international students like Choi in a ghost town. She wasn’t about to passively wait through the long weeks of break, the aroma of Chinese cuisine wafting down the hall exacerbating her loneliness and frequent fire alarms rattling her nerves, so she treated herself to Christmas in New York.
We connect on Zoom a few days after her return, and minutes into the call Choi shares her screen, launching into an impromptu slideshow.
“I waited half an hour to see this,” Choi says, pleased to share her photo of Rockefeller Center’s towering Christmas tree. “There was a huge line.”
Here’s a shot of Sour Patch Kids slippers hanging in a store. (They were overpriced. She bought them anyway. She regrets nothing.). Here’s the sun setting over the skyline. (It rained a lot, which was a downer, but eventually the weather cleared up.) Here’s the Clintons’ house, from a side trip upstate. (Choi had mere seconds to snap the photo before Secret Service agents shooed her away.) Here’s the ocean, from a quick stop in Connecticut.
Choi didn’t get to do everything she wanted to. She loves ice skating (which is a more common and affordable pastime in Korea), but was too nervous to skate at the Rockefeller Center rink—too many unmasked skaters. Indeed, Choi was diligent and cautious: She got tested; she covered her face; she avoided risky situations. And she was baffled whenever she encountered laissez-faire attitudes toward COVID precautions.
Still, it was better than waiting through a lonely winter break on a deserted campus 8,000 miles from home. She returned from her ten-day trip refreshed and invigorated and substantially happier than she would have been otherwise. “I had literally no time to be depressed,” Choi says.
Choi (whose given name is Hanul) comes to Duke from Seoul, a product of South Korea’s famously rigorous educational system. She’s an achiever—a straight-A student and all that—yet her parents never really pressured her about school. Rather, Choi’s folks maintain an enjoy-yourself-along-the-way mentality, making them outliers in a driven culture, she says.
Choi’s a science nerd who hates math, and a music lover who reads classical scores for fun. She’s laid-back, unassuming, unhurried, and emotionally frank. Choi has a gift, too, for turning stressful situations into funny stories. In her telling, her flight to the U.S. and arrival at Duke become deadpan comedy—even though that thirtysix- hour day was defined by seemingly exponential turns of bad luck.
Once in Durham, however, Choi found her footing quickly. “I felt lonely for the first few days. But after that, I found good friends who live right next to me,” she says. “I was at the beginning of the semester…the beginning of college life.”
And she connected with a group of other students from Korea. Choi loves food, and meeting with this group to eat Korean food—real Korean food—and catch up means a lot to her. Indeed, she’s one of maybe six students from Korea in her class, Choi says: A dozen were accepted to Duke for the current academic year, and of those, half are in the U.S., while others took a gap year instead.
Aside from the food, Choi has had to adjust to an unexpected difference: the lack of shade. “It’s hard that there’s no skyscrapers at all here,” she says, admitting she thought Durham would be much bigger. “I miss city life so much.”
A few days into 2021, Matthew O’Stricker decided it would be a different kind of year. He would actually write down his goals. In the spirit of accountability, O’Stricker thought as he waited in line at a Georgia Starbucks, he would also share these goals with his mentors. “I sat down, had my peach green tea, and sipped it, and just wrote down my goals in different categories,” he says.
O’Stricker was home for holiday break, and he was trying to find his why. He has a history of seeking purpose through immersion—never as a dabbler. He tried his hand at debate, enjoyed it, and moved on. He started a podcast club. He held student office all four years of high school, eventually earning the student-body presidency as a senior. In the summer of 2020 O’Stricker joined an anti-racist task force at his high school, though he had already graduated. Once arriving at Duke, he sought—and won—a senate seat in Duke Student Government.
O’Stricker is ambitious, yeah, and accomplished, yet he’s not sure which—if any—of these things are his “why.”
“I haven’t really thought forward within this, like, ‘this is my career.’ Should I?” he says, wondering aloud whether student government is his immediate future or if there are nonprofits or other organizations more in line with whatever his career path ends up being. He has identified something critical, though: “What I get the kick out of most is helping others or figuring out a way to create change in the community I’m a part of.”
O’Stricker is a “country bumpkin,” he says with an audible smirk, from Douglasville, Georgia—a city on the Alabama side of Atlanta where “you’ll see more trees than buildings.” O’Stricker’s parents are culturally aware, he says, and they turned him on to Hendrix, the Isley Brothers, and the Beatles, though he was also drawn to aughts-kid fare like Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, Drake, and T-Pain.
From an early age, if O’Stricker cared about something, he was all-in. First this was video games. Then it was humanities, and from middle school forward, he asked a lot of questions in class. A high-school history teacher responded by making O’Stricker find his own answers. She became his mentor. By the time O’Stricker arrived at Duke—his dream school—he had developed an interest in public policy.
For all his drive, ambition, and habit of holding public office, however, O’Stricker is an introvert. Sure, he’s a passionate speaker with infectious zeal—even in conversation—but he knows to leave time to recharge his batteries. And perhaps this is one reason he’s remarkably at ease attending Duke in its COVID-altered state. (Maybe this is hell for extroverts, he offers, but that’s not him.) He strikes up conversations wherever he is, gleaning insights from professors, upperclassmen, and workers at Burger King or the campus store—though he’s just as happy solo.
“I don’t know what another Duke is like,” he says.
On a hot late-Summer day, the members of Duke’s marching band stood in a block formation on the practice field—seven or eight feet between them—and got reacquainted with their instruments. Maybe they hadn’t played all summer. Maybe they were a little rusty. No matter.
A young clarinetist stood near the rear, in the tall grass where it was shady. Fresh from Texas, fresh from high school, fresh from a job fulfilling online grocery orders at Walmart, freshman Colin Kaeo initially wasn’t so sure he wanted to join Duke’s marching band. He loves band, sure, and was first-chair clarinet and drum major at his high school in McKinney—a Dallas suburb—but COVID made him reluctant.
Once he read the marching band’s precautions, however, Kaeo felt more at ease. He’s glad he joined, too, he says—even if the first rehearsal scored him twenty-odd mosquito bites, he recalls with a laugh.
In north Texas, where Kaeo was raised, sports are king. Marching band, too, is incredibly competitive, and Kaeo enjoyed that element. He immersed himself in the work ethic, performance aspect, and overall competitive atmosphere. He became a better communicator and more confident leader, and unexpectedly found the value-add of making friends and having fun.
“Once I got to Duke band, this year since we weren’t even performing at games, it was pretty much just for fun,” he says fondly. “It was the first time in a long time that I played my clarinet and enjoyed playing it, just the experience of playing it.”
Kaeo learned fight songs, committing them to memory, and pop hits like Usher’s “Scream,” which very quickly made it to his running playlist. But the most important thing about marching band was making friends. “I feel like I got really close with the other freshmen in the clarinet section,” says Kaeo.
Thanks to COVID, meeting people is not easy, which concerned Kaeo. He eventually found like-minded folks regardless. He met them in band, and at Pratt’s First-Year Design seminar, an in-person course that assigns real-world engineering challenges to teams of first-year students. Kaeo’s FYD teammates became his friends, and all while tangling with a problem related to bronchoscopy, which is the use of a tube passed from the throat to the lungs to identify or treat respiratory issues.
Kaeo admits it sounds dry, but he recalls an hours-long technical-memo drafting session in a Trinity House study area. He wasn’t looking forward to it all—whose idea of fun is that?—and yet it was a moment the friendship among these teammates coalesced.
“We were joking around, having fun,” Kaeo recalls. “Even though we were working on something that in itself wasn’t super fun to any of us, we really developed better camaraderie in that moment.”
ABOUT A DECADE AGO, Bri Cellini and her family flew from North Carolina to visit her cousins in Seattle. Among the gifts they took west were Duke and Carolina T-shirts, and Cellini remembers her older brother’s horror when he realized the shirts were in the same bag. “They can’t touch each other,” her Heels-fan brother said as he rectified the situation.
Cellini thought it was funny.
Though Cellini’s parents are from Montreal, she was raised in Durham and Hillsborough. Sports rivalry was her brother’s thing; skating and tennis are much more Cellini’s speed. Indeed, Cellini was a competitive figure skater until a middle-school injury, at which point she shifted to coaching. The Orange County Sportsplex’s skating rink is a sort of second home—in fact, her family moved to Hillsborough to be closer to it—and Cellini has shared its ice with Duke’s figure-skating club more than a few times.
“They were just so kind and open and supportive, and just really interested in my own life and what my future aspirations were,” Cellini recalls. “They were always willing to give me advice if I asked for it. I thought that just really reflected what Duke actually is.”
Having spent her life in the Triangle, Cellini always figured she’d go away for college. She hardly considered Duke an option—too geographically close—yet a mini-camp her junior year gave her a taste for the school. It wasn’t until August of Cellini’s senior year, however, that she had her “Cinderella moment.” At her mother’s insistence, Cellini toured campus. Compared to other university tours, her Duke tour was refreshingly lighthearted. The forested paths of West Campus captured Cellini’s imagination, and she shamelessly whipped out her phone to snap pictures.
“The shoe fits,” Cellini says.
One thing that stood out from the campus tour was its guide—a double-major in engineering and English. Her interdisciplinary focus appealed to Cellini, whose own interests combine humanities, medicine, social science, and athletics.
“I’ve always been fascinated by humans, human connection, and how our bodies function,” she says.
As an athlete, she’s seen her share of injuries, but also gleaned an understanding of what is best for the human body. As a skater and then a member of a tennis team, she’s learned how to care for herself, and also how to connect with others. A middle-school interest in sports medicine and psychology evolved into a high-school focus on global health and policy, particularly related to food security and addiction.
Once at Duke, she zeroed in on mass incarceration and racial justice, too. Cellini started volunteering and interning with a Durham substance- abuse prevention program, Together for Resilient Youth, after its founder spoke in Nicole Schramm-Sapyta’s “Drugs and the Law” class, and also joined political scientist Adriane Fresh and social scientist Nicholas Eubank’s “Building a Dataset on Mass Incarceration” project as a research assistant.
“Recent events following the murder of George Floyd really brought to my attention the connection between drugs and policing certain areas and then mass incarceration,” Cellini says. “It’s the modern-century form of slavery, which is really difficult to come to terms with. But it’s true when you look at it and the statistics.”