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Brodhead Tells Students: Build A Life You Can Be Proud Of

Brodhead Tells Students: Build A Life You Can Be Proud Of

Duke president addresses first-year students at opening convocation

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Editor's Note: The following address was delivered at the convocation for first-year students on Aug. 24 in Duke Chapel. Video of the convocation can be watched online here.

Brodhead at 2011 convocation
President Richard Brodhead speaks with first-year student Sammie Truong of Austin, Texas, and her father, Tai Truong, after the undergraduate convocation. Photo by Jared Lazarus

Durham, NC - I read a story in the "New York Times" that put me in mind of you. The story was about an American high school student who, drawing on his summer experience in China, was able "to create a standout personal statement" in his college applications, which told of exploring ancient tombs of the Ming dynasty and "trading jokes with long-dead Ming Emperors."  Don't laugh: last year you too had to create the impression that you were one of the wonders of the world. And it worked! Human marvels, I welcome you to Duke.

I believe that each of you is great. But my point in telling the story is, you don't have to do that any more. You no longer need to compose a show of yourself in order to impress colleges. You are free of that. In fact, you are entering on a freedom the likes of which you have never experienced and will seldom experience again.

Let's take the measure of this new, free life. First, you'll be out from under parental supervision (bye bye mom and dad), with no loving busybodies to wake you up or ask what time you got in. Second, your new life is amazingly unprogrammed. Unlike high school, where the algorithm filled your academic program pretty predictably from year to year, here you'll have a wilderness of choices, with a few simple rules on how to use the menu. Third, for years your life has been structured by routines whose origins were long forgotten. But you haven't formed a single Duke habit; your life here is a blank slate waiting to be composed. Fourth, one day you'll have others to support, but as of now, you're free of dependents. Fifth and best of all, you don't need to get a full-time job. One of the beauties of going to college is that when people ask you what you do for a living, you can simply say "I go to Duke." End of discussion. If you are already fretting about the job you'll get after you graduate four long years from now, all I can say is, some people just can't stand the taste of freedom.

I want you to stop and do justice to this profound truth. Around the world, people fight and die for freedom. But when you enter Duke, this priceless privilege is yours for the asking. Released from so many constraints, you have the chance to be the maker of your life. My plea to you is, put this great freedom to some extraordinary use.

Let me descend to some particulars. In college you will have freer access to alcohol, sex, and other what used to be called adult pleasures. I trust this is not news to you: the association of college, drinking, and sex in an alcoholic haze was already well documented in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," written in the fourteenth century. As for drinking, you know the law and are obliged to obey it. But such laws have never made alcohol and the conduct it aggravates less prevalent on any American campus. Many of you have strong values on this score, and many of you will find those values tested.  My message to you all is, this is a domain of freedom. Make it the object of your conscious and thoughtful choice.

It would be disappointing if, after telling us that you longed to chat with Ming emperors, the height of your college aspiration really was to live like a bit player in a college reality TV show. I say it seriously: take responsibility for your conduct; don't do things you are not proud of. And if you say, of any practice you'd really rather not partake of, well, I have to, or what will They think? I reply, have some courage and see where it gets you. Having escaped the tyranny of all kinds of adult supervision, it seems a poor sequel to cave in to the tyranny of some imagined Them. Here's the truth: if they were candid, "They" might turn out to be ambivalent too and to welcome alternatives and frank discussion.

My first rule for the use of your freedom is, build a life you can be proud of. My second, at least as important, is: make great education happen for you.

You've come along at a strange historical moment. The economy used to rebound from recessions, but no one knows where it is heading now. In the 20th century the spread of consumerism drove economic expansion, but now free spending has brought us to a crisis point. But how to reduce personal and national indebtedness without stifling growth? It's complicated. Meanwhile, a raised standard of living has raised energy use and unhealthy diets around the world. How to separate the growth of well-being from the health and climate disasters that come in its wake? It's complicated. We thrilled at the stories of freedom's global spread last spring, but creating a new social order has proved far more challenging than those happy headlines suggested. As I said: it's complicated. Here in the US no one is certain if our vaunted political system is capable of making hard choices or solving complex social ills. It's very complicated.

With uncertainty at every side, it's easy to see how you could think your main college task was to make a beeline for some well-paid job. But there are at least two things wrong with that picture. For one, our emerging challenges are so interdependent and all-encompassing that no known job can reliably remove anyone from their reach; and second, the world will be in sorry shape if all smart young men and women withdraw into insular, prosperous cocoons. You're going to have greater success and a happier life if instead of fleeing the hard facts of your time, you try to understand them, engage them, and shape better outcomes in place of worse.

You are the very people who could make that kind of difference. That's why we admitted you. (Did you really think it was because of your standout personal statement?) But to deliver on your potential down the road, you need this place to broaden and deepen your understanding and strengthen your active powers. Which brings us back to your freedom and your use of it at Duke.

Duke is a place of amazing abundance. The resources are here to teach and fortify you in every way you can imagine. Plus I never saw a school where so many people are so responsive to student interest and initiative. But as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. To turn Duke opportunities into your personal strengths, you have to want them, reach out to them, and actively incorporate them into your life. It's your choice, but it matters what you do.

It's in your power to create the dullest academic program compliant with Duke's minimum formal requirements -- if you want to do that, we can scarcely stop you. But it's also in your power to make our curriculum light up with your curiosity and discovery. Out of class, you could give your brain a four year rest; or with the slightest effort, you could involve yourself in the flow of discussion that fills this campus every day, by which people sharpen each other's ability to think. It's in your power to create a Duke filled with people of the sort you already know and have least to learn from. Or, you could take advantage of belonging to one of the most varied and talented human communities on the face of the earth and open yourselves to each other, teach each other, and find out what you can accomplish together. Wherever I go, the thing I find most in demand throughout the world are smart, quick minds who know how to work creatively with others across divides of expertise, discipline and culture. At work and play, every day here is a chance to learn that critical skill -- or, with some difficulty I admit, you could leave this skill undeveloped. It makes a difference. You make the choice.

I once saw a guy in a shirt that read, I Went To The Sorbonne and All I Got Was This Lousy Tee Shirt. It's up to you what you get from Duke. I don't doubt that you will have an extraordinary experience here; I just don't want it to fall one inch short of what it could be. Want to know how you could really make a standout personal statement? By having your own dreams for your education and using Duke to help you fulfill them. That's what you came for. That's what we're here for. Come in and join the fun.






Undergraduate Convocation 2011

Undergraduate Convocation 2011

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