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My freshman experience at Duke - looking back

posted May 17, 2015, 2:35 PM by Thabit Pulak   [ updated May 17, 2015, 10:18 PM ]
My first year at Duke is officially over. I've been at home for a bit over a week now (came back on the 2nd of May). Looking back at my experience at Duke, I can conclude overall that it was a great one - it has been quite a transformative year for me. Never had I been away from home for such long periods of time. Initially, it was quite overwhelming to adjust (to some degree, I still am adjusting!) - but through meeting with the active, and passionate student body and the professors, I was able to gradually ease in, and better take advantage of what Duke had to offer. Despite me being a freshman, Duke afforded me many opportunities to get engaged in interesting activities on campus! Taking a look back at the year, here are the main things which I have been engaged with on campus as a freshman! 

Research Independent Study on Developing a Compact Arsenic Water Filter 

One of the highlights of the opportunities I've had as a freshman at Duke was to be able to pursue my own research independent study in a lab that I wanted to work in. I was so surprised at how receptive the Duke professors were to having me be able to work and follow through with my research proposal. I wanted to build upon my research concerning the affordable water filters I've been working on in Bangladesh. Currently, there is a filter manufacturing plant overseas which makes filters and distributes them to local rural villagers in need. After starting up the manufacturing, I've learned a number of things which need to be further improved to certain barriers to implementation - such as size and weight . The current filters , despite being lighter and more compact than existing filters before my research, were STILL too heavy and could benefit from being smaller. I wanted to look into ways of making such filters smaller and lighter, by experimenting with how much sand I can removed to still ensure the functionality of the filter remained by replacing the lost sand with fine sari cloth (a 100% cotton cloth ) at the nozzle of the filter. 
I started this independent study around February of second semester. The project is still a work in progress - I over the semester, I was involved in project design and then bringing in the relevant materials that were necessary to build the filters. At the end of this semester, I've managed to build 6 filter shells of different sizes. The filter bodies are made of a translucent PVC so as to be able to see the contents inside the filter. Next semester, I intend on adding various types of filter media into the filter bodies in varying amounts to determine the effectiveness of various medias, such as sand, sand with iron, sand with sari cloth, sand with sari cloth coated with antibacterial ionic silver , and sand with modified calcium carbonate. These are the plans I have in place to move forward with next semester. Hopefully all goes well! I am definitely looking forward to it. 

Duke Independent Research - Spring 2015

Alspaugh Dorm House Council Officer

One of the first things I got involved in when I arrived at Duke was to run for my house council of my dorm (named Alspaugh). I decided to do so because in just a short amount of time, I quickly loved the environment, and made many friends. I just feel that Alspaugh had a unique environment amongst all the other freshman dorms, where pretty much everyone in the dorm knew each other - which made the place feel like a second home. Our house council accomplished many things - from hosting food gatherings such as dorm barbecues, to celebratory events, such as cookout milkshakes in honor of Duke's NCAA win, the house council made Alspaugh an even more awesome dorm. Perhaps the highlight of 
what house council has done is to initiate the building of the Alspaugh Dorm Bench. Our dorm was the first dorm to build a bench by a a few months - and none of the benches that were built afterwards matched the unique character of our bench. The bright purple color was a daring one to use, but one that ultimately stood out pretty nicely.

I wanted to spend even more time in house council next year,  after seeing the impact it made on my dorm freshman year. As a result, I am now Vice President of the House Council for the dorm I will be living in next year as the sophomore (the dorm's name is called Few-Pride Rock). I am looking forward to it!

Paid Writer for the Duke Undergraduate Research Blog

Being a writer for the Duke Undergraduate Research Blog was the first job I've had since coming on campus. I actually applied for the job during the summer before freshman year. It seemed like an interesting job - basically blogging about science events around campus. It was somewhat of time commitment, as it required one to attend the science events (which, being a freshman on East Campus, often required you to go to West Campus), and then come back to write the article. As a result, I wasn't quite an engaged in writing articles during my second semester. I plan on recommitting to this job as a sophomore. For those interested, here is the link you can access to see my writings:  http://sites.duke.edu/dukeresearch?s=thabit+pulak

Campaign for Class President

Back in senior year of high school, I ran for Senior Class President , and I was surprised to find out that I won. This was after 3 years of running for class president, and losing every time. Below, you can see the video I used as my main campaign:

As a freshman in college just beginning to know people, I knew my chances at winning class president were pretty slim, just as it was in high school when I was a freshman. The chances were even more slim especially since I hadn't picked a running mate for vice president. Infact, out of the total of 8 presidential candidates, I was the only one without a vice presidential running mate - in retrospect, it was something I should have considered doing. I ultimately ended up losing the election. My campaigning didn't contain much "substance" or a so-called campaign "platform" - mostly everyone knows that the class president is in charge of a very small array of duties, and not in any position of "real" power. I wanted to run for class president mainly because if I were to help bring change on campus, I can use my position as a way of representing my class when talking to figures of power. Thus, the campaigning was done in a fairly humored approach - but the underlying message was serious nonetheless. As I've always loved the Terminator from a  young age, and looked up to it as a role model in many things, I centered my campaign around that. Here's my main campaign video for Duke Class President: 

Although I've lost this year, rest assured, that I'll be back again for next year ;)

Hult Prize Competition at Boston, Massachussetts 

Upon coming to Duke, I was exposed to the entrepreneurship scene by taking a class called "Social Innovations". Every wee
k, various entrepreuneurs would come to our class to talk about their experiences in how they started up their own businesses and social enterprises. Later, I found out about the Hult Prize, which was a competition in which college and graduate students every year come up with innovative business ideas to combat some type of a world problem. This year's problem to solve was Early Childhood Education. A few friends and I made a team and attempted to compete within Duke for a bid to the national competition - but we ended up losing to a graduate student team. We thought all was lost, but we ended up applying directly to the national competition, bypassing the university. Over 30,000 teams applied though this method, and surprisingly , we got through, and were amongst the 100 teams picked to compete in the United States national fair! 

The Duke institute for social entrepreneurship paid for our travel expenses to Boston, Massachussets to where the competition was being held. I opted to visit MIT and stay with a friend there. The next day was the competition - it was quite an experience! Most of the competitors were far older than we were - ranging from MBA to PhD students, whereas we were an all freshman team. When we presented our project in front of the judges. We got surprisingly great feedback. We thought we had a good chance - but alas, it became fairly apparent that other teams came extremely well prepared - we ended up losing to a graduate student team consisting of MBA candidates. They rightfully deserved the win. Even though we lost, I was so glad to have had the opportunity to come to compete in this prestigious competition. Meeting the motivated people and learning of the innovative ideas that such people had to change the world were really inspirational to me. I hope to return to the competition next year, having learned from our experiences this year!

The Conclusion of Freshman Year 

Freshman year was quite a transformative year for me. It marked the first time I was away from home for extended amounts of time, and had pretty much full autonomy of what I did both in and out of the classroom. I am grateful to have the chance to attend a prestigious institution like Duke- the friends and teachers I've met here are some of the brightest, yet most humble people I've met in my life so far! The last day of my freshman year at Duke before I left for home was both a happy and a sad day. As I stared at my now empty dorm room where I have had so many memories, I was wrestling two
 different thoughts. I missed my family and friends back at Texas, whom I grew up with and developed as a person, so I was happy to be able to finally see them again after so long- but at the same time, it was
difficult to leave my wonderful friends I've made at Duke. 

As I was leaving, a group of my closest friends helped me with my bags, and walked me to the waiting Uber van - and before I parted , we took a group selfie. That final picture was a great way to symbolize the end of my freshman year journey, and the transistory period to even more wonderful things to come in future years.