Here’s a conversation I’ve had a lot:

Other Person: “Did you do a pre-orientation program?”

Me: “Yeah, I did Project BUILD.”

Other Person: “Oh, cool. So you, like, build stuff?”

Me: “Um, no. Not really.”

Other Person: “…Oh. So what is it then?”

First of all, it’s a misnomer. Project BUILD is a week-long pre-orientation program at Duke University, though the concept is not unique to Duke. Pre-orientation programs exist at many schools as opportunities for incoming freshmen to get to know each other, get to know campus, and get to know life without daily parental oversight.

At Duke, our programs are either one or two weeks long. They all involve teamwork and upperclassmen leadership. They all have official names starting with “Project.” Project Waves is a week at the beach. Project Wild is two weeks in the wilderness. Project BUILD? Less intuitive.

The trick lies in the word BUILD, which really isn’t a word at all but is instead a rather clumsy acronym for “Building Undergraduate Involvement in the Life of Durham.” Not sure what that means? Neither was I.

I chose to participate in Project Build, despite its ambiguous title, based on numerous recommendations from upperclassmen whom I’d met while visiting campus. As it turns out, Project BUILD (or PBuild, to students) is a week of community service. 50 first-years and 30 upperclassmen dedicate seven days to volunteering in various parts of Durham. Our work is diverse and exhausting. I spent one morning scrubbing the toys of an outdoor day-care facility. That afternoon I planted trees in a nearby park. The next morning was cooking for the Ronald McDonald house, then off to a local Rehabilitation facility for the afternoon.

That’s how it was every day for a week. We’d roll out of our sleeping bags (we all slept on the floor of a common room, sleeping bags packed wall-to-wall save the slim, taped-off sliver designated as our “walkway”), pour ourselves a bowl of cereal, and head off to the first destination. Between worksites we devoured our smushed pb&j sandwiches (there’s not much can beat the simple pleasure of biting into two paper-thin pieces of Wonder bread oozing with JIF and neon-red jelly). Then on to the next job.

When I think back on PBuild, though, it’s not the work that stands out. Rather, it’s the people I worked with, and the community members we met along the way. My memory of PBuild consists of a sequence of moments:

Moment #1:

The first night, 3 o’clock in the morning: Running laps around the hall with my sophomore crew leader in order to keep from falling asleep. We wore pajamas and socks with no shoes and on every corner I tried to drift. I ran into the wall three times. We laughed.

Moment #2:

Lunch break on our first day of service. Our pb&j sandwiches had been sitting out in the sun so long they’d started to melt. We’d spent the morning planting trees outside a retirement community. One of the residents walked out in front of me. He looked from tree to tree. He paused and pointed at one tree in particular, and said: “That looks like the tree we had growing up. In our backyard. We built a swing on it.” He was smiling.

Moment #3:

The second night, or the night of my “interview”: I was the first of the underclassmen in my 8-member crew to volunteer to share my life story. Though not a requirement, nearly everybody in PBuild ultimately participates in this ritual. It is universally considered the most rewarding part of the week. Over the five hours between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., I learned more about myself than I had in all four years of high school. At the end I felt proud–not just for having the courage to share a personal story with a group of near-strangers, but proud, too, of the story that I had to share.

Moment #4:

At Ronald McDonald house we ate lunch with the residents. I sat across from one little girl and her mother. The girl wore a Florida Marlins baseball cap to cover her bald head. “Are you from Florida?” I asked. The girl was shy and played with her food. Her mother said, “No, she’s from Charlotte. But she likes the logo. She loves fish.” I nodded in agreement. “Me too,” I said. “You should take her to the Duke gardens. There’s a pond that’s full of beautiful fish. All different colors, like orange and black and white. You can sit and watch them and they’ll go right up to the surface.” The girl’s mother thanked me and asked her daughter if she’d like that. The little girl still didn’t look up, but her cap bobbed up and down as she nodded excitedly.

Moment #5:

Sitting in a circle on the floor of Wannamaker dorm, eating spaghetti. I don’t remember what we said, but I remember laughing so hard marinara sauce spilled out of my nose.

Moment #6:

The last night, spending forty-five minutes taking turns spraying each other with a garden hose as we tried to wash ice cream and chocolate syrup out of each other’s hair. It was our own fault. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to play ice cream sundae tag?

Moment #7:

A few weeks later, when I returned to the Rehab center, I saw a young man who’d been new to treatment when first I visited with PBuild. Before he’d looked tired, dark circles under his eyes, his lips stuck in a pout. This time he smiled and greeted me. He was having a good day, he said. It was his first day working as a mover. He was happy to do something, to be productive. The way he said it, you could hear the pride in his voice. I was proud, too, and thankful that I’d gotten to share in his joy.

In retrospect, “Project BUILD” may not be such a misnomer after all. No, we didn’t build houses or bridges or even lego spaceships. Instead we built connections. We established a link between college students and their community–an increasingly important effort as universities continue to expand into and influence their surrounding neighborhoods. And we formed close bonds between people who, as of just one week prior, we hadn’t even known existed.

As I soon learned, the ability to form connections with people from all sorts of backgrounds is one of the most helpful tools in transitioning to college. When I entered PBuild I was scared, a little lonely, and very lost. I ended the week with a newfound sense of confidence and self-worth, not to mention a level of respect and appreciation for my new home that most first-years may never find if they don’t push themselves to explore their surroundings, both on-and off-campus.

My decision to do PBuild remains one of the best decisions I’ve made in college. I would encourage any incoming first-years to participate in a pre-orientation programs, and to give back to their community as early as possible. There are a lot of skills to learn in college–some skills that will show up on your organic chemistry test, others on your Spanish II oral exam–but the ability to connect with people is something for which you will be forever grateful.

Rebecca Shapiro

Rebecca Shapiro

Becca Shapiro is a student at Duke University in the class of 2019 studying Mathematics and Creative Writing. Becca is interested in exploring the power of interdisciplinary study, in particular the mutually beneficial impacts of combining STEM fields and the arts. After graduation, Becca intends to become a high school mathematics teacher and a novelist. In her free time, Becca enjoys long runs, funk concerts, and the combination of good food with better conversation.
Rebecca Shapiro

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