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Driving to Camino Island, country music, open windows, wind blowing, sun. The signs on the road clearly state that we are in Seattle, but all I can really breath in the car is a joyful California vibe. You know how the driver usually leads the atmosphere of the whole car, and how a ship takes the smell of the captain after time? Well, if that car smelled of San Diego, and our first two weeks felt like home, it’s thanks to our Californian captain: Tom, our program director.

“I made four types of chicken, all dietary restrictions included, serve yourself!” shouts Tom in his barbecue apron. The star professor of the Duke Marine Lab spent the entire day going over receipts, setting his backyard for the dinner, and even making brownies for the first time! It felt like home that night in Seattle, yet we were all strangers to that city. During the two weeks together, Tom gave us a fundamental lesson: for communities and families geography is only a variable, it was a new city but still the same Duke Fam.

While these little actions like a dinner or a car ride to the ocean often eluded us, I’d like to emphasize how our program director Tom went beyond his assigned role and acted more as a family away form home for all of us. Tom, with his two angles Emma and Claire, set an environment where we always felt welcomed, free to laugh, share our sincere thoughts, and enjoy a barbecue together as we could have done in our own backyard.

The value of a “family away from home” is not something to overlook when you’re entering a new community, working full time with organizations that want to make an impact. To effectively take the most from the DukeEngage experience, students have to feel that they belong to a new place in a limited amount of time. This delicate operation has been successfully completed by Tom, Emma, Claire and all the Duke alumni that welcomed us in the Puget Sound family. When you’re traveling, it is hard to not feel like a tourist. But when you’re treated as a local, it’s easier to feel home. And, when you are feeling home, it’s easier to learn and make an impact.

Thanks to Tom and all the people that made this lightning-quick adaptation possible!