PUBLISHED:September 02, 2021

Students share excitement about returning to Law School for classes


Faculty and staff share advice and put measures in place to help students with the transition, including virtual office hours, a 2L orientation, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion sessions.

Nearly 18 months after the Law School moved to learning online in response to the pandemic, in-person classes resumed Aug. 23, and there was a sense of excitement from students, faculty, and staff. 

“I am excited to be attending classes in person again,” said Grace Embry ’24, who is starting her first year at the Law School and who as a senior at the University of Florida spent last year taking online classes from her apartment on campus, which she shared with roommates. “I personally learn best in the classroom environment, which offers more collaboration and less distractions. In addition, I think it is easier to get to know professors and classmates.”

Many studestudents talk during orientationnts said they were looking forward to being able to meet with friends and professors in person again, as well as to attend student organization meetings, go to events, or just pop in for a quick chat during office hours. 

For some, the return to in-person learning will be their first time inside the Law School. In addition to the incoming 1Ls and LLMs, who were not able to visit when the building was closed, the 2Ls who spent their entire first year in virtual learning will be learning their way around the building and Duke’s campus, as will LLMs who started their one-year master’s program in January. 

“I’m feeling really excited about the next semester. It is going to be my first time experiencing life on an American campus, and I’ve been waiting for this moment since December 2018, when I was accepted at Duke,” said Suelly Correia LLM’21, from Brazil, who previously worked in contract management. 

“At the same time, I can’t deny I’m a bit nervous to start this experience in a post-lockdown life when mostly everybody has been in quarantine for so long. I’m sure that some things will be different than it used to be in the past. I’m curious and excited to see what the next semester will bring into my life.”

A few students expressed some nervousness about the return after having grown accustomed to virtual classes. 

“I am both excited and apprehensive to return to campus,” said Nya Gavin ’22, who stayed in Durham during virtual learning so she could access Goodson Law Library. “At times, learning remotely was difficult, and I look forward to the opportunity to learn in person again. On the other hand, there were benefits to online classes like being able to watch the recordings of classes. I hope that we can take some of the positives of online learning and implement them for in-person classes.” 

Gavin said one thing that helped her with her virtual learning was to create a dedicated working space for it.

Students expressed enthusiasm for some components of virtual learning to remain in place, long after the pandemic is in the past. Others said they would be glad to leave virtual learning behind them for good. 

“I hope that everything will be like it was before COVID,” said Miro Georgiev LLM’21, who is from Bulgaria and worked as a lawyer in Germany before beginning his studies in January. He added, “I look forward to seeing the Blue Devils and experiencing the atmosphere on basketball nights.”

Faculty and Staff Support

Faculty and staff are working to make the transition as easy as possible on students, and are prepared to offer support throughout the coming months. Some faculty are continuing to offer virtual office hours, and the Student Affairs office hosted “Welcome to Duke 2.0” orientation session for second-year students, which included building tours, an introduction to the library, a session on diversity and inclusion, and lunch with classmates in Beber Sculpture Garden.

“I think both staff and faculty are thinking carefully about making the transition back to in-person teaching and learning work as well as it can for everyone,” said Clinical Professor Rebecca Rich ’06. “I also think some faculty are being even more intentional than usual about discussing and promoting wellness and mental health resources in our classes.”

Lewis Hutchison, assistant dean for student affairs, said that some of the pandemic provisions may even remain in place during the transition — and perhaps beyond. 

“Our goal has been to return the Law School to as close to pre-pandemic life as possible,” he said. “Of course, we reserve the right to keep any pandemic habits that benefit us going forward. For instance, some meetings will be over Zoom and that never would have happened before the pandemic. We also started reaching out to students a lot earlier than we did before. We will likely keep that because we found that it really helped the community bond between students once they finally did arrive.”

One panel at the 2L orientation offered tips from two recent graduates and two professors about how to ease the transition to in-person learning and how to be successful in the classroom.

“I think it is a chance to reset. But I also think if you’ve been through really tough times in the last year, don’t expect too much of a reset,” Professor Kathryn Bradley told the students. “That is, reset what you can, figure out what’s the thing you need most to do now that’s going to make this year different from last year. Don’t expect your entire life to be fabulous because we’re still wearing masks and it’s your second year of law school and that’s going to be hard enough as it is. I also say, just be kind to yourself.”

Bradley said that the advice students are receiving to take a lighter load this semester “is really good advice.” She also encouraged students to get help if needed from the Office of Student Affairs, academic advising, or CAPS. 

“The fact that we’re all back in the building does not mean that we’re miraculously better,” she said. “I guarantee it’s going to feel a lot better being in the classroom than being wherever you were last year doing this on Zoom. I’d say just be good to yourselves.” 

For many students, the social and political issues that dominated the last year only compounded the challenges of virtual learning, whether it was police brutality, racial or ethnic violence, inequality, or political division. The Law School offered Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion sessions during LEAD Week to talk about some of these issues and to help ensure that all members of the community feel welcome.

“2020 and 2021 have been challenging years in many ways, and it was important that we acknowledged that for students,” said Ebony Bryant, director of diversity initiatives. “From the pandemic to the racial injustices and murders that took place to the election, many of our students, both new and returning, are still trying to find their peace in the midst of lots of trauma. The DEI session and the faculty panel were opportunities to address and highlight differences and how to navigate them in the classroom and the larger Duke Law community. We are in a time in this country where we need more people who embody leadership more than they are trying to be in charge. Our students have the opportunity to be those people.”

Looking Forward 

While many students are focusing on how to make the transition to in-person learning successful, many are also just looking forward to the sense of community they can experience and the activities that will be available.

“The pandemic has made everyone feel isolated one way or another, and I truly missed in- person interactions, so I am excited for the upcoming collaboration and the ability to connect with the Duke community,” said 1L Katie Retzbach, who graduated from the University of Alabama in May with a major in Political Science and Marketing. 

Retzbach said that when the pandemic started, she moved home to Pennsylvania to do virtual classes, but her two younger siblings were also home doing the same thing, which made things difficult. She was able to move back to the dorm last fall, and she had a mix of virtual and in-person classes, until things moved back to in-person in the spring.

“I am so excited that we will have the opportunity to attend classes in person. While Zoom and other technologies were great platforms for online learning, there is nothing like a traditional, in-person classroom setting,” she said. “One of my greatest concerns about attending law school during the pandemic was the possibility of my first year being online, so I am extremely relieved that my classmates and I will be able to have a somewhat normal first semester.”

Meredith Criner ’22 spent the last year alternating virtual study in Durham and her home town of Wilmington, N.C. She said she is most excited about being able to return to in-person learning, but she’s also looking forward to a few other benefits of the campus reopening. 

“I cannot wait to be back on campus and have the opportunity to interact with the wider Duke and Durham community,” she said. “I look forward to attending sporting events and other Duke activities if able to.”

She said she loved Camp Out and the Duke basketball games she was able to attend in the first part of her 1L year, and she had a great time playing pick-up soccer and other sports with her classmates. But, most importantly, she said, “I am excited to have the opportunity to celebrate the last year of law school with my classmates and friends.”

Hutchison asked students to be patient with everyone they meet to make the transition easier on all. “Your fellow students have been under the same stress as you — and so have the faculty and staff,” he said. “We are all trying to get back to some sense of normal, so extend a little grace … and we’ll do the same.”

Rich encouraged students to extend that to all members of the Duke Law community. 

“Just treat each other with as much kindness and patience as you can muster,” she said. “That includes Law School staff, fellow students, professors, and the administration. Research shows that when we are experiencing lots of stress, we become more egocentric and have a harder time being empathetic. 

“I think that’s useful to be aware of as circumstances with the pandemic continue to change and we get accustomed to working and going to school in person together again.”