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Monthly Archives: September 2020

The Sun Rises on Autumn

By Lukas


As the sun sets on summer and the pace of “normal” life begins to resume, I have found myself constantly in turmoil about the near future, the years of college, and the distant “career” that supposedly comes after all of this. No matter what career my existential daydreaming has chosen, I find my thoughts wrapped in music. My headphones might be playing music from a 15 hour long orchestral playlist, or my hands are laying down my violin in my case before a quick break. No matter the scenario, this truly unique form of art has captured me and will never let go.

Films and music have been areas of study and entertainment and art that have altered the way I approach living. I see this influence, however, as more of a woven fabric rather than an external force. The subtlety of art in my life has evolved into an enhancement of lived experiences rather than a charging bull of change. When I received my diploma from my music school in June, the lack of closure made each goodbye seem superficial and undeserved. Three months later, the fear of losing one of the constants in my life has made its way into my existential daydreams and thoughts. That consistency is one I aim to keep through my gap year in the spring. This summer, I dedicated myself to one piece: the first movement from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major. Quite literally since I began playing the violin have I listened to this piece. Depending on the interpretation, it can run from 15 to 20 minutes long, and it is truly something to behold. I began in the summer of 2019, but other shorter, more reasonable pieces took its place. Having no commitments this year to present myself in front of my music school’s jury in the winter, I threw myself at the massive 15 page challenge. Not only was this one of the most musically and technically complex pieces I had tackled, but also did I decide to learn it by myself. The precedent I set for myself while learning a piece took control. Memorization would not be forced; rather, I would let daily repetition of complex passages and daily playing of the piece on Spotify or YouTube take control. I have months to go until I see performance even as a possibility, but being able to play the piece through with most of the memorization already having taken place sets me up for a successful polishing.

As my artistic ideas for the spring begin to shape into plans, my fall plans have been cast. I have spent the last month preparing myself for a three month voyage. As part of High Mountain Institute’s Wilderness and Conservation program, I will spend my fall in the vast American West. My trip will take me through Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. I begin in Leadville, CO, and through several excursions over the course of the three months, including backpacking, rock climbing, and rafting, I will finish in Phoenix, AZ. My last month has seen an increase in my physical activity, including biking, taking long walks through my neighborhood, or “hiking” in Central Park and through Midtown. I am thrilled to have a change of scenery and continue to learn about the natural world that surrounds us.

Why Take A Gap Year

By Matthew


Although I will not be attending classes this year I will never stop learning and nothing, not even another stay-at-home mandate will prevent me from growing intellectually. I’m learning and growing from every experience I’m having this summer.  Everything from navigating social interactions, precarious backcountry situations, catering to guests’ needs and cooking food on outdoor fires (in a summer snowstorm no less) is helping me navigate the future.  I am learning to appreciate the benefits of preparation and communication while attempting to resolve problems with upset guests from my job as a bellman at a local high end hotel. That alone will help me in the dorms, classrooms and labs when I get to school.

Over the past few weeks, as many of my friends leave home and settle into life as college freshmen, I have been reading, hearing and watching scores of entertaining stories about the various amazing experiences they all seem to be having.  This was inevitably going to be the first gut check where I’d likely be second guessing my decision to take a gap year.  As my family and friends predicted, it hit me hard.  But it also forced me to review my sentiments when deciding to take this year off and remind myself what I hoped to gain from it. My anxiety hasn’t lasted too long, thankfully.  I remembered that I’ll eventually get my chance to be a freshman at Duke and that I’m actually not missing out on anything.  My initial intention to create time, space and experiences between high school and college to grow as a person and gain knowledge and perspective along the way to help maximize my time at Duke is still front and center as I embark on my journey.

One of the biggest keys to success in college and life that many high schools don’t effectively teach is intrinsic motivation.  For students to truly make the most out of their years in college they need to know what they want to do and how to get there, but also, most importantly, why they want to do it.  Knowing and being able to articulate the “why” gives students both the focus and drive to maximize their educational experience. In high school and college most students are motivated extrinsically, by grades, others aspirations, and following the status quo or society’s general idea of success, not driven by personal interests. Those motivations lead to many students losing interest in their classes and simply being unhappy. In a gap year, especially this one in 2020,  there is no clearly defined path to success.  The path to knowledge, self-awareness and enjoyment needs to be crafted by the individual and is largely going to be free of judgement.  I am navigating the current climate by choosing to pursue areas of intrigue or curiosity, and not chasing the wishes of others. As students are able to identify and follow their inner guidance chips they will be owning their choices, chasing their moments, learning by trial and error and likely setting themselves up to truly flourish in college and life as more informed stewards of their intrinsic motivations.

I wish all my buddies a wonderful year of discovery.  Right now my plans span from mountain peaks, to the far Pacific and back to Europe, with much detail still to be filled in.  I look forward to seeing what I learn, how I adapt and where I might grow as a friend/son/brother/student over the coming year.



Early Days

By Kayla

Ballet class before sunrise is definitely a shock to my system. Last week, I started dancing with American Repertory Ballet’s virtual trainee program in Princeton, New Jersey, but I still live in California. I’m slowly getting used to the early start each day, shifting my sleep schedule for the year.

Even though I am dancing at home, dancing as a trainee is already different from dancing as a conservatory student. New choreography and classes accompany the daily ballet barre, and I enjoy working with the variety of teachers and professional dancers. Learning repertoire from the ARB company dancers is especially interesting, as they recently performed the pieces that they are teaching us. Dancing as a trainee is a preview into what the schedule of a company dancer is like.

We’ve already started learning classical repertoire and contemporary choreography. Learning so much new choreography adds to my creativity – I’ve really enjoyed the variety of works we’ve learned so far. Because I don’t have a physical spot in the pieces, the typical stress of casting is lifted, and I can concentrate on the choreography and the tone of the pieces. I plan to focus on my personal artistry this year without the goal of a solo and with the goal of finding more depth in my dancing.

Zoom rehearsals aren’t the standard corps de ballet experience, but I’m finding different ways to learn from others. I can apply the other dancers’ corrections to myself, and observe their strengths to finetune my own dancing. I can also work to make sure my timing and musicality match that of the other dancers – provided that the internet doesn’t lag too much!

Occasionally, it is difficult to dance with expression and presentation within the walls of my home, but my teachers’ corrections and the pianists’ music push me to dance for an audience beyond the Zoom screen. I can’t wait to continue working in my virtual trainee program!

Gratitude in the Q

By Sammy

Two weeks in a tiny room, shared with three other people.

Feel free to leave the room, as long as you are okay with losing $30,000 and being kicked off the program, deported, and banned from coming back to Israel for the next ten years. Someone from another program left the room to try and fix the Wi-Fi router and suffered the consequences, so we haven’t really tried bending the rules. At least we have a gorgeous view.

 While strict and relentless, these are the measures Israel has to impose in order to accept more than 16,000 Americans into their country amid the pandemic. While I’m upset that I cannot explore the streets of Jerusalem and meet others on the program, I understand the restrictions. So where does that leave me? With time. Lots and lots of time. During the year, I can never get enough free time. I’m constantly busy and want more time to relax. Now, I have an abundance of it. At first, I was bored and bitter. But then I realized what a valuable gift I was given. I had two entire weeks to sleep, relax, workout, read, catch up with friends (when the calls went through), write, converse, and learn Hebrew. This may seem like the most mundane schedule ever; however, after realizing how rare it is to have time without responsibility to school or a job, I started to appreciate the surplus of relaxing time instead of resenting it. And in doing so, the two weeks have somehow shot by. I know, two weeks in severely strict quarantine should have been the longest two weeks of my life, but they have somehow been a blur.

A mindset of gratitude truly allows you to live in the moment, enjoying the situation before yourself despite the circumstances. Since I found a way to be grateful for the two-week, no-nonsense confinement, I don’t think it’ll be hard to find ways to be grateful for every other aspect of the trip, starting with the country-wide three-week lockdown, which starts the day after quarantine is over. Once we are done with quarantine, we’ll be confined to the campus for the following three weeks due to the lockdown. However, following the quarantine, the three weeks of freedom to go anywhere on the small campus will seem incredible. Gratitude, I think, is one of the most underrated of emotions. There have been spells where I am constantly regretting the past and/or dreading the future, ignoring what’s before me. During those times, I find myself to be much less happy, as I’m completely missing the present. Without gratitude for the “NOW,” you miss out on your life. Gratitude is maybe the most important key to fulfillment and happiness. When people are sincerely grateful for what’s before them, they can be happy. Kohelet, one of the fabled Jewish scholars, debates the meaning of life. He constantly goes back to the notion that all is futile and finite, explaining that all you can truly do is be grateful and enjoy the pleasures of life.

Yet gratitude is also situational, elusive, and often difficult to achieve. An American may leave for the day, grabbing a can of soda, and be on his way. Yet an African who never tasted a pop drink in his life could grab the same can of soda with an immense amount of gratitude. The more you have, the harder it is to be grateful for the same things. By looking at the world and life as a whole, I have been able to find gratitude for the “NOW.” It can be hard to notice the simple pleasures of life that not everyone enjoys, such as friends, a healthy body, even glasses. Rather than look at the specific circumstances of a situation in regards to my life, I try to find something special that anyone could be grateful for, even in the seemingly “less desirable” situations. Even a two week quarantine can be seen as a blessing.

Customer Service in a Pandemic

By Maya

Treat customer service workers like human beings. While this is always applicable, it takes on a new meaning in the midst of a pandemic. Now, it means the lives of the workers and their families are worth no more than the minimum wage. Unfortunately, this truth seems to have been lost on much of the public.

This summer, I have been working at a locally owned ice cream shop in the middle of a college town. Parking was expensive, I made most of my wage from tips and I was constantly putting myself and my family at risk. Due to the economic challenges presented by the pandemic, which were amplified for a business that relies on the presence of college students, we got no hazard pay. In the small shop it was impossible to distance myself from coworkers, whose lives and social responsibilities I had no control over. Not to say that I hated my job. There were many positives including the friendships formed with my coworkers and of course the free ice cream. However, every shift involved asking customers to wear their mask or stand 6ft apart. Both of these often ended in an argument despite the statewide mask mandate.

This shines a light on the flaws in public health policy and management on both the macro and micro levels. As well as the politicization of the issues. I am very interested in exploring these issues in depth and paying attention to the way it plays out in the future.

I hope that as the pandemic progresses that people pay extra attention to those who make the few things we can still do possible. Ideally more people will understand that the mask is less for you and more for the person behind the counter who has served 200 people today. So mask up Blue Devils!


The First Month

By Shun

It’s been around a month since I’ve arrived in Japan, and I finally feel like things have started to settle down. I finished my self-quarantine, moved into a share house, found a nice place to work every day, and enrolled in the local gym. However, along the way, it was hard getting used to living alone in a new environment far from home. I no longer knew where everything was, where to eat, where to take some time to relax, I can’t walk to the park to play soccer, or practice violin at night, and there’s nothing stocked in the fridge to eat when I am hungry. 

The last of the three was the most difficult challenge I’ve had to get used to since arriving in Japan. In the US, whenever I was hungry, there was almost always something on the table, or in the fridge, I could prepare to eat. Here, I always have to go out or to the supermarket to buy groceries and cook something myself. In the beginning, it was fun to take time to cook dishes I had never cooked before (even with my subpar cooking skills), but as I’ve started to get busy, the quality of my meals (and daily schedule for that matter) have really started to deteriorate. It’s really made me appreciate the time and effort my parents put into cooking (thank you). 

Apart from the difficulties of my daily cooking/dinner adventures, I have really enjoyed my first month in Japan. Whether it was starting a project with 5 other students to help reduce the barrier for foreign exchange students to study in Japan and provide more opportunities for Japanese students to practice speaking English or taking a two-day trip with some friends to explore Enoshima Island and Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet and bond with many different people from completely different walks of life.  

Though I feel like I have so much already, I know there’s so much more left to come. Whether it’s programming, cooking, or talking to people I’ve never talked to before, I look forward to whatever awaits me next. 









Dang, That Was Unfortunate

By Ray

Hello readers, 

This is Ray, and I’m starting to write my second blog. Since my last blog, I’ve hiked the Lost Coast Trail, planned a thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail, and hiked in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.  

 The Lost Coast was a really nice way to re-enter the backpacking world. I went with one of my close friends; we finished the 26-mile trail in three days and two nights. We finished our four-hour drive Saturday afternoon and hiked 9 miles or so. We then trekked 17 miles the second day, and barely hiked anything the third day to finish early in the morning. Some of my highlights were jumping into swimming holes, eating dinner after a long day, and tidepooling. The lost coast is normally super foggy and cloudy, but we had clear skies the entire trip. The views were crazy! 

Our First Campsite

After the Lost Coast trip, I was super excited to keep on backpacking. I set my sights on the Tahoe Rim Trail – a 160-mile loop around Lake Tahoe. I planned on finishing the hike in eight days, hiking 20 miles a day. It would be my first-time solo trip, and I was pumped for it. I made myself a resupply box to pick up in Tahoe City and got my permits. Instead of a tent, I brought g a bivy sack (an enclosed sack for your sleeping bag – there’s only room to lay down). I don’t have claustrophobia, and I don’t really see the purpose of hanging out in a tent by myself. My back welcomed the change from a 3 pound tent to a 1 pound bivy.  

A day before I wanted to leave, everything took a turn for the worse. Wildfires in California were absolutely destroying Tahoe’s air quality. The idea of inhaling smoke 24 hours a day for a week wasn’t super appealing, I’m not going to lie. I called an audible to shelf the Rim Trail and wait out the smoke. (California is still on fire, so we’ll see when this happens). This is/was a huge bummer and very unfortunate. On a broader note, my trip cancellation is trivial compared to the people who have lost their homes and their lives from the fires. I need to be aware of my privilege.  

After postponing the Rim Trail, I started to research the air quality in the rest of California. While cross-referencing air quality maps with open space, I found the Trinity Alps Wilderness – a small wilderness by Mt. Shasta. The mountain and the current wind conditions had created a small pocket of breathable air. I found a weather report, a trailhead, and left the next day with four days of food. I was itching to get out of the house.  

“I’ll get a map on the drive up,” I hoped as I pulled out of the driveway.  

 I arrived at the Trailhead late at night (with a map) and prepared for an early morning. At 5:30 am, the air in the Trinity Alps wasn’t perfect, but it was much better than the rest of California. I reached a lake two hours in and stopped for breakfast: cold instant oatmeal, a bar, and some jerky. Breakfast of champions. 

From a high ridge, I could see heavy smoke in the distance. The smoke on the horizon combined with an uncertain air quality forecast pushed me to turn my trek into a day hike and find my way back to the car that night. I let my mind drift while I hiked: calm hiking is fast hiking. My water filter proved its worth at multiple streams and lakes.  

I finished 12 or so miles by noon. After a snack, I stood up, took a swig of filtered creek water, pulled my pack on, and continued to walk. I passed more lakes, traversed more ridges, and saw fewer people. After hiking many more miles and jumping into a lake, the sun started to set. With five miles left, I started to hustle. Hiking sucks when you start thinking about how much you have left. The last five miles sucked. I expected to see the trailhead at every turn in the trail. My calves cramped.  

I was ecstatic to finally reach my car. 14 hours and 25 miles later, I was wiped out. While I thought it was an awesome experience, my calves disagreed. See you all in the next blog! 



Silver Linings in Jerusalem

By Sami

On this quiet Shabbat evening I sit alone on the couch while my new roommates nap. There’s not much else to do at the moment. Jerusalem has restrictions in place requiring American students to quarantine for two weeks, and at times, without proper motivation (and with 108-degree weather), we find ourselves struggling to keep busy. I must acknowledge, however, that I lucked out to be put in quarantine with five guys who, apart from being incredibly nice, like to cook. Although I didn’t meet anyone from my program before getting off the flight to Israel, four of my five roommates were on my flight.

The moment I entered Terminal C at Newark International Airport I was already in Israel. Hundreds of Jews, young and old, crowded the check-in. My parents and I felt shocked both by how few safety precautions there seemed to be in place, but also by how many kippahs and head coverings we saw. While in line to check my bags, a boy with peyes, a button-down shirt, and a kippah introduced himself to me and asked about my plans in Israel. Before letting me answer, though, he began to talk about all of the different Yeshivot (educational institutions where generally more Orthodox Jews attend), where he and his friends were going and proceeded to ask me what I thought of them. “In all honesty”, I responded apologetically, “I don’t know much about Yeshivot or many other religious institutions where Jewish teens go. I’m going to Israel on a pluralistic program because I want to better understand the Jewish community in Israel and become acquainted with a part of my identity that my family and close community cherish deeply.” With that the boy, who seemed surprised by my unfamiliarity, gave me a kind smile and left to check his bags.

After a long awaited and dreaded goodbye from my parents, I proceeded to the gate. Again, I became overwhelmed by the enormous crowd of young Jews as I passed through a second, more intense, round of security. I knew very few people in Israel and didn’t know what to expect from this partially foreign country, so when I watched all the young men congregate together in excitement, talking about all the friends and family they’d visit as soon as arriving, I grew nervous. Of course, I was incredibly excited for the coming year in Israel, but did I really belong? I haven’t gone to Jewish school for six years and have become increasingly more secular as I’ve gotten older. Maybe Israel isn’t meant for me.

Luckily once I got on the plane, I found my friend Maia from home. Her much needed familiar face relieved my growing anxiety, and our long talks during the flight helped me remember why I chose to come to Israel in the first place. We both shared the same intimidated sentiment towards the pack of Yeshiva boys, but the two of us also belong to the same Jewish Latino community in D.C. that has a strong connection to the land of Israel. As I’ve become more secular, I feel as though I’ve started to view my community through an outsider’s lens, and although that has given me new insights, I still want to be able to understand through experience what Israel means to my community. So I’ve come to Jerusalem, the most holy Jewish city in the world, on a program where I’m one of the least religious students, and subsequently it feels a bit awkward. But I know why I’m here, and I believe, regardless of what state the country is in politically and with regards to Covid, that I will experience something incredibly important, worthwhile, and fun.

The last few days have seen the hottest recorded temperatures in Jerusalem since before the founding of Israel…and we have no air conditioning. But somehow this past week has still been one of the highlights of my year. Being locked in a room with five other guys helps you bond in a way that is simply impossible in any other circumstance. Just yesterday, after exercising on my tiny balcony, I did yoga with my roommates, made them a classic Mexican egg dish for breakfast, took a much-needed online Hebrew lesson with them, reorganized our fans into the perfect configuration, played board games for hours, and made banana bread with my five new friends. I participated as best I could as two of them led our room in blessings for our Shabbat dinner and felt incredibly welcomed as they patiently explained to me the customs and blessings that I was unfamiliar with. I’ve known these guys for only one week, and yet I feel as if I’ve grown up with them since early childhood

Unlike some other participants on my program, I have no intention of becoming more religious over the course of this year. Still, I hope to learn from my new modern-orthodox, conservative, reform, and reconstructionist friends about their own customs and beliefs. I originally also hoped to be able to explore Israel on my own during free weekends, but with the recent announcement of a nationwide lockdown, I may have to adjust my expectations for the year. Nevertheless, I find myself more excited now than ever over being part of this program and being surrounded by young adults who, like me, hope to learn from each other and expand each other’s understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

Embracing My Artistic Side

By Camille

In my previous post, I mentioned that I had begun taking an online Adobe Illustrator course. I have now finished the class, and I wanted to share some of my pieces! Over the span of the course, each week we were given three assignments and a longer project to complete. By the end of the course I amassed a portfolio of work showcasing the different techniques we studied. 

I also wanted to use this post to highlight my progression! I’ve never really considered visual art to be my forte. This was highlighted by going to an arts high school, where we were separated by discipline. Admiring the work of the art students, I always considered the visual arts to be outside of my realm. Music and dance were always how I expressed myself. 

Going into my gap year, I set the goal of spending part of my time furthering the things I already love doing and using the rest to explore things outside of my comfort zone. This class definitely helped push me beyond my comfort zone and also allowed me to develop a new skill along the way. In school, I became wired to work towards concrete criteria that became familiar overtime. For this class, I was suddenly being evaluated on my use of perspective, incorporation of shadow, balance of tones and shades, artistic vision- concepts that were completely foreign at the start and seemed somewhat impossible to execute. 

To end the class, the task for our final was to design an imaginary world for a character to inhabit. The goal was to tie together much of the work we had done with character design, landscape, and typography. At first, I struggled with conceptualizing something imaginary that I wanted to work on. Perhaps more than ever, reality- and what it looks like today- has been at the forefront of my mind. After some deliberation, I decided to use the Blue Devil as my character and transport elements of reality to an imaginary location. My final piece features elements of Duke’s campus in space- a loose interpretation of things that really do exist. Besides being fun to make, it showed me how far I had come in a little over a month. Things that I had struggled with at first were second nature, and my work time had shortened dramatically. Looking forward to the future, I am excited to put the skills I have developed to use, as I now have the foundation needed to design posters, create business cards, and develop other versatile vector visuals. 

 Below is our very first assignment, where we learned to create basic shapes, and the two art boards I turned in for the final.

The Delicate Art of Tutoring

By Valerie

What initially came across as a brilliant scheme, however, was thwarted by messy realities.  

Head throbbing and eyes sore from excessive screen time, I had to muster every fibre in my body to keep myself from spontaneously combusting. For the umpteenth time, I explained the concept with labored enthusiasm, struggling in vain to suppress the growing frustration in my voice and hoping without much faith that the information would finally be retained.  

It was with naive optimism that I began tutoring, certain that the learning techniques I had painstakingly accumulated over the years would be the panacea for my tutees’ academic woes. I would share my know-how, enlighten young minds and bear proud witness to their meteoric improvements, glorying in my efficacious ways.  

Time was a scarce commodity and attention even more so.  

Well-intentioned attempts to cultivate genuine interest and provoke critical thought met with perfunctory regard at best, unable to prevail over a deep-seated institutionalized fixation on grades that I, at times, found myself capitulating to against better judgement.  

Upholding formalities with teenagers just a few years my junior felt strange and discomfiting. But I was also wary of striking an overly casual tone for fear of relinquishing too much authority. It was a delicate tightrope act, each relationship with its own dynamics to navigate and balance to maintain.  

Teaching bristled with its own challenges. I blundered often, my calculation errors and misreading of questions sending my poor tutees into an unnecessary spiral of confusion and self-doubt just when they were certain they finally
had it all figured out. 

At times, sudden and unexpected mental blocks left me floundering helplessly in the face of simple word problems, ashamed and disheartened. Articulating complicated concepts for the first time was daunting. I struggled to find the appropriate terms to replace convoluted technical jargon while retaining their essence. My disorganized verbalizations did scant justice to the intricate yet systematic networks of mental connections upon which my understanding was founded.  

I tried as much as possible to refrain from imposing my own expectations on my tutees, careful not to overstep the fine line separating the personal and the professional. But it was difficult not to feel disappointed when the results were not commensurate with the effort. 

Over time, I realized that progress could hardly be measured in terms of trifling numbers and alphabets on performance reports. Though I was powerless to diminish the pragmatic significance of standardized test scores, I sought to emancipate myself and my tutees from the tyranny of metrics by celebrating intangible and unquantifiable successes. 

I was still far from proficient at teaching but certainly more skilled than before. Leveraging on the benefit of familiarity borne out of hard-earned trust and well-established rapport, I tailored my pedagogical methods to suit each tutee, slowing down or speeding up at appropriate junctures and employing the use of visual aids and textual references if necessary. Lessons were strategically scheduled on the weekends, when minds were well-rested and functioning at peak performance. Time, though still at a premium, was maximized with more effective teaching and learning. 

Tutoring has been unexpectedly frustrating, humbling and rewarding in equal parts, being as much a test of my intellect as a trial of my emotional intelligence. I am still lacking in many ways but my tutees constantly propel me to improve. I look forward to our collective growth in the coming months.