Every fall, more than 2,000 Duke graduate and professional students congregate in the most remote Blue Zone parking lots to celebrate, relax, and sprint whenever they hear a whistle.
Blown intermittently from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m., sometimes as frequently as fifteen minutes apart, these whistles are arguably the worst part of Campout, the weekend-long, sleep-optional festival culminating in a Sunday morning lottery that awards 725 the right to season tickets for men’s basketball. The whistles spark unsavory comparisons, students grumbling references to dogs being called for dinner, or even invoking Pavlov himself. And yet, they’ll invariably drag themselves to the check-in tent—some barreling forward with bags of ice in hand, more carrying rations from food trucks, and at least one passing through this red tape while dressed in a cow onesie—to prove, concretely, their passion for Duke.
Campout is insane behavior for anyone to engage in—let alone future doctors, professors, lawyers, and business leaders. Which, ultimately, is kind of the point.
“I’m absolutely nuts,” Justin Losciale, a third-year Doctor of Physical Therapy student, says, laughing and sharing a picture from his white-coat ceremony, in which he wore a Duke blue Afro and blue shades.
This year, Losciale is co-chairing the Duke Basketball Committee with Maurizio Martinovic ’12, a second-year M.B.A. candidate at Fuqua. Together, in addition to enlivening the grad-student section—the baselines of Cameron Indoor Stadium—during home games, they run “the cultural immersion experience” that is Campout. “All the events are designed to get you closer to Duke,” Losciale says, noting Campout’s seminal role in welcoming graduate and professional (G&P) students to the university.
While undergraduate Cameron Crazies tent for weeks before the Carolina game in famed Krzyzewskiville, getting a portion of the 8,500 G&P students at Duke to games can be a struggle. Interactions with students from the other nine schools in the G&P umbrella are more limited—some programs, like physical therapy, operate entirely off-campus—so a communal event like basketball holds less appeal; students reserve much of their school spirit for their undergraduate alma mater; and devoting weeks to getting basketball tickets when striving for an advanced degree is, um, logistically impossible.
The solution is Campout. Consolidated to just roughly thirty- six hours and chock-full of Duke-based programming (a scavenger hunt, trivia, and soccer and volleyball teams to support) and Durham acculturation (Saturday morning is allocated to community service throughout the city; dinner this year was provided by local mainstays Heavenly Buffaloes and Nanataco), the event—a twenty-six-year tradition—originated to enable time-sensitive fandom but mostly has helped bridge the gap for students who otherwise might never encounter one another.
“There’s a structure that facilitates community very well on the undergraduate side,” says Marcus Benning ’14, a third-year law student and president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council, highlighting that undergraduates all live together on East Campus during freshman year. “Outside of the welcome convocation and graduation, Campout is the only other time when you’ll see as many professional and graduate students together.”
It’s a unifying party, as well as an engulfing and anthropologically fascinating one. Across three parking lots, campers sleep in anything from triple-parked tents to hammocks or RVs, for which there are fifty slots reasonably allocated across schools. (Martinovic: “The Nicholas School won’t RV because, well, they’re the Nicholas School.”) There are notable differences from standard undergraduate parties—more cigarettes and many more jugs of Deer Park water— that hint at both heightened stress and wizened hangover-prevention.
Mostly, everything about Campout is smart: Even the parameters of the ticket lottery system, Martinovic explains, were revamped and calibrated this past year via a Monte Carlo simulation. (For campers, missing enough check-ins disqualifies them from the lottery, and making a high proportion of check-ins earns them more lottery entries—which is why campers do so much sprinting.) Topics of conversation range from the difference between “anthropomorphic” and “anthropogenic” to the problems posed by greater antimicrobial resistance, the latter discussion occurring ten feet from a game of beer pong. This fun, intellectual vibe is Campout’s M.O.— according to Benning, Campout is “a celebration like LDOC [the undergraduate- oriented Last Day of Classes], but it’s more of a conversation generator.”
The way to bring people together, it appears, is to make an event irresistible. One of the most striking things is how many people are there strictly for the aura of Campout—even if you’re not aiming for tickets, Campout has something for you. You can already have graduated and be working in Cary and be simply coming back to reminisce with friends in your old computational biology program; you can be a divinity school student from California, meet a medical school student from New York and, fifteen minutes later, enter a cornhole tournament together; you can have a family and still lounge with your spouse and kids during the mid-Saturday afternoon carnival, painting your faces before meeting the basketball team; you can be from Lebanon, eating home-cooked Japanese food, and do some salsa dancing at 1 a.m. Sunday with your international peers in the Master’s of Law (LL.M.) program; you can even be an engineering Ph.D. candidate, like Tiffany Wilson, troubleshooting the digital check-in system you built that advanced Campout beyond the era of kindergarten attendance checkers, even though seven Duke-Carolina games ago you “did not even know who Coach K was.”
“It’s just really cool to see everyone hanging out, all of the different programs, in one place,” Wilson says. “Yes, there are people who have tests to study for and things to work on, but for the most part, everyone’s just like, ‘Alright, I’m taking the weekend off,’ and having a good time.”
Late Saturday night, karaoke is set up by the medical school RVs. A duo sings the Spice Girls’ “If You Wanna Be My Lover” to a swaying crowd; in the background, an inflatable screen broadcasts the Duke football game versus Northwestern. To the west, the suites of the Blue Devil Tower in Wallace Wade illuminate the clear night sky. The karaoke is more laughing than singing—it’s stupid, sure—but here, in the delirious homestretch of the weekend, there’s the communal feeling Losciale describes from his first campout: “a sense of ‘this is home.’ ”
The song ends right as another whistle blows. A long night of annoying checks awaits, and all the campers are brutally sleep-deprived. Minutes later, though, the de facto dance floor—the asphalt between two lines of RVs, with a precariously jerry-rigged strobe light overlooking it, and Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” coming through the speakers—quickly repopulates. Basketball tickets may come tomorrow, but for right now, the Duke experience, the school year, and the night are all just beginning.