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Nannerl O. Keohane: A Welcome to New Students

At undergraduate convocation, President Keohane encourages new undergraduate students to spend the next four years exploring "the back room of the mind"


The following talk was presented by Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane at the annual undergraduate convocation ceremony Aug. 21 in Duke Chapel.


Let me add my own warm welcome to those you have already received from so many people at Duke. We know that you have anticipating this moment ever since you received that fat envelope last spring. We have also been eagerly awaiting your arrival, and we are very glad you are here.

Welcome also to transfer students who are joining Duke today; we accept very few transfer students, so you have already proved yourself a person who stands out from the crowd, and we hope that you will find a home at Duke.

And also, a hearty welcome to your parents and families listening to this ceremony in Page Auditorium. Duke has a well-founded reputation for being especially welcoming to families of our students, and we hope that you will all feel very much a part of this university in the years ahead.

As you have heard, your class is multifaceted and very talented; not every one of you has done quite such an exotic set of things, yet each of you has distinctive attributes that led the admissions committee to choose you as a member of the class of 2007 at Duke. We have faith in you as a person of considerable promise, and we are all here to help you realize that potential in the years ahead.

The last time I addressed a group in Duke Chapel was back in May, for the Baccalaureate services for the Class of 2003. The success of their journeys is very vivid in my mind, from the time they were sitting where you are as freshmen to the much more self-aware, learned, and self-assured seniors in their caps and gowns. In the fall of 1999, they were just as uncertain, somewhat scared and eager as you may be today; they turned out superbly, even though each of them hit their own tough snags along the way -- and so will you.

If history is any guide, the sentiments of the Class of 2007 and your parents are somewhat divergent at this point. Students, you are eager to get on with your new life, despite feeling a little bewildered'"which I realize most of you are not going to admit. Believe it or not, many of your parents are experiencing separation anxiety'"which they may or may not admit.

In a few days, this will all have reversed itself: many first-years will feel somewhat homesick, and many parents will begin to appreciate the advantages of a nest with one fewer fledgling. I promise you will still recognize each other in May, 2007, and at all points in between.

If you do get homesick, or find the whole process of being a college student more daunting that you expected, remember that many people here are eager to help you flourish. They include faculty members, advisors, deans, RAs, FACs, counselors, administrators, and your fellow students. Take advantage of their advice, their interest, their support, and ask for help when you need it.

I'll start the ball rolling by giving you a few words of advice myself, launched with the kind of illustration that faculty members love to use. One of our English professors, Cathy Davidson, published a book this year full of stories from an early 20th-century writer named Zitkala-…a, who recaptured and retold many old Dakota legends. A number of those stories feature a character named Iktomi, a morphing giant spider.

Iktomi has no regular mealtimes, like many Duke students I know, and he often travels without following any well-worn path, which can actually be an advantage in exploring new territory. But Iktomi wants it all, and he doesn't hesitate to cheat and steal to get it. He longs to be anything except what he really is, so he goes around persuading other animals to turn him into a peacock, an arrow, a fawn'"only to fail in each new identity before he has hardly tried it on. He is forever taking huge gulps of what has not been offered, failing to show either compassion or civility, restlessly moving on from one thing to the next. Maybe you knew somebody like him in high school.

You too will be trying on a lot of identities in the next few weeks and months, as you figure out what it means to be a college student at Duke; and some of those identities will fit better than others. That's part of the university experience, and you will learn a lot that way, about yourself and other people. We encourage you to take risks and discover new facets of yourself, and if you don't do this, your education will be much less effective '" and much less exciting.

But unlike Iktomi, I hope that as you do explore different shapes and aspects of yourself, you will remain true to your own fundamental standards and ideals, the inner compass or core that you have developed through your experiences and education so far -- something perhaps best described by the old- fashioned word "character." You will hear the term with reference to the Duke Community Standard adopted by the student government, with all it implies about academic and social integrity. You will hear about character with reference to pressures you will feel in this new environment -- to cheat rather than work something out yourself, or engage in dangerous sex, dangerous drinking, dangerous drugs.

When something like that happens, as it surely will, I ask that you remember your personal dignity, your important boundaries, and observe those of others. Give some thought to how you want to live in community'"in this community'"and acknowledge that the community in turn has the right and responsibility to make certain ethical demands on you.

Character means taking responsibility for what you know to be true, and what you do about it. If you find that you don't know or understand the community's expectations, learn more'"because your choices have consequences, and because honor matters here and in the rest of the world, also. We're counting on you.

You will often hear about character in very positive contexts around here, because Duke students typically express character in highly skillful ways. I'll mention just a few; you'll undoubtedly discover your own.

Over the past few years, this part of North Carolina has become home to more and more Spanish-speaking people, as workers and families from Mexico and elsewhere are attracted by North Carolina jobs. Hispanics have joined African Americans and Anglos as a major population group almost overnight, and support services are still scrambling to catch up. If you speak any Spanish, you'll have many opportunities to be helpful to some of these families trying to find their way in a new home. Even more than you, they are strangers in a strange land.

Whatever your strengths, before you leave this university, about 80 percent of you will have spent time volunteering in and around Durham. Indeed, a number of you have already devoted yourself to learning about and helping out our neighbors as part of Project BUILD, and many more will tutor an at-risk child, help out a single mom, or join one of many initiatives through the Community Service Center.

I know two sophomores who, inspired by a public policy class on global environmental change, launched a campus movement called the Duke University Greening Initiative'"DUGI [DOO gee] for short'"which in less than a year mushroomed into an organization able to finance nine summer research projects, craft a 50-page business plan and a strategic plan, drum up a $25,000 seed grant, send representatives to two national conferences, present to the Buildings and Grounds Committee of the Board of Trustees, and assist the administration in making Duke a truly green campus in building projects and in use of our resources.

So opportunities abound, and remember that your university education only starts in the classroom.

One of the biggest sources of support you will find, as the founders of DUGI did, is one another. As you have discovered, all first-year students live together on East'"a deliberate attempt to get you to know each other. Take advantage of your collective diversity, and recognize that teachers are everywhere. Get to know classmates who come from a different country, speak a different language at home, have skin of another color, worship in a different way. Befriend someone from a different socio-economic class, someone from a part of the world you've never visited, or someone whose moral and political views differ sharply from your family's -- and your own. A difference of opinion, said John Milton, is the beginning of wisdom. If you emerge from college unfamiliar with or suspicious of other kinds of people, you will not have what it takes to lead in this protean, multi-faceted world of the 21st century, and we will have failed you. You will have failed yourself.

You will also discover many different pathways through Duke, both literally and figuratively. This campus that now seem so bewildering will soon become familiar. But I hope that very familiarity does not lead you to take for granted the beauty and serenity of this place -- the Gothic arches, gargoyles, forest, gardens. Many of you fell in love with this place at first sight, and the Duke campus is one of the reasons you chose to come here; take time to explore and enjoy it rather than just following the same familiar routines for four years like a gerbil in a cage.

Once in awhile, as you pause to admire the amazing architecture of East and West campus, say a silent word of thanks to Julian Abele, the Philadelphia architect who designed both campuses and whose portrait hangs in the front hall of the main administration building, the Allen Building. Abele never actually saw the strikingly beautiful campus he designed'"because he was black. In the 1920s it was hard and demeaning for an African-American to travel in the South; so he never came. Yes, thank God, things have changed. Forty years ago Duke matriculated its first black undergraduate; 20 years ago we established the Mary Lou Williams Center in honor of one of America's premier jazz pioneers, who worked and played here.

Your living on East also plays off another Duke tradition: unlike some of our peer institutions, Duke has been co-educational for most of its history -- but until the 1970s there was a separate Woman's College housed on East. Duke has been proud to have women play leadership roles for a long time, but your class will be the first to fully implement new policies and experiments arising out of a recent, and very high-profile, Women's Initiative, whose steering committee just this month issued a set of recommendations that reflect a great deal of work done by and for students.

In the more truly co-educational institution which Duke aspires to be, both women and men will be praised not only for physical attractiveness but for intellectual achievement and good work, for speaking up and speaking out. In many venues, we see that young Duke women and men are quite capable of seeing each other as human beings, fellow students, and friends, not only as potential sex partners or rivals. But there is work to be done, and I look forward to all that this class will bring to the table.

On East, you will notice a little low wall all around campus. There's a lot worth exploring beyond that wall. I encourage you to discover Ninth Street and Brightleaf Square, the Durham Bulls, the Carolina Theater, the wonderful restaurants, the Hayti Heritage Center and more. A sensationalist biography of James B. Duke's daughter Doris described in vivid terms how the Duke family homestead was savagely burned to the ground by hellraising Union soldiers during the Civil War; the truth is that it survived the war handily and is waiting for you to visit it not far away from here. It looks nothing like the stereotypical plantation or home of a robber baron, and it tells you a lot about the origins of your university.

If you expand your sense of space just a few miles, you will get discover this exciting region and beautiful state. Our neighboring colleges and universities are especially worth getting to know -- NC State, NC Central, and only eleven miles away our greatest rival and closest partner, UNC-Chapel Hill. Nobody expects or wants our ancient fierce athletic rivalries to dissipate; Carolina is and will be our nemesis in almost every sport. But nowadays, all day long and into the evening the Robertson Express bus runs forth and back between West Campus and UNC, courtesy of the Robertson Scholars who populate both campuses and seek out the best of both worlds.

That bus is yours whenever you want to head over to Chapel Hill, to use the library, to attend a play or concert, or just to hang out on Franklin Street. You might decide to take an advanced course or seminar, doubling the number of potential courses in the areas of greatest interest to you. Duke students generally find a friendly welcome on the other campus, but if during March Madness you lean out the window as you pass through Chapel Hill and scream "Go to hell, Carolina, go to hell!" all I can say is you will deserve what you are likely to get.

Beyond our region, the rest of the world awaits your exploration while you are here on campus, too. Many of you will study or take internships abroad at some point during your Duke years, or go abroad on field trips or special assignments. In fact, of course, many of you come to Duke from around the world, and we hope that you will share your own perspectives generously with some of your classmates who may never before have traveled very far from home. Roaming even further afield, you are likely to spend a great deal of your time over the next few years in cyberspace -- a fascinating place to be, but one full of as many wonders, temptations, and treasures as any part of the unknown world ever offered explorers in an early age. As some of the early map-makers were fond of saying: "Here be dragons." Use the internet and the world-wide web wisely, revel in the fact that you have access to places and entertainments and storehouses of knowledge and communication devices that would have boggled the minds of envious members of any previous generation. But don't get stuck in cyberspace, and don't spend so much time in it that you forget that the real world offers even more treasures than virtual reality. If you find yourself sending email to your roommate sitting at the next desk, you've gone overboard. Stop and laugh at yourself and then go over and say hello. I've given you a good deal of advice in this convocation address, which came closer to preaching than I intended. Perhaps it's because this is my last year as president, as you may have heard, and there is so much I'd like to tell you. I so much want each of you to have a wonderful, transforming, exhilarating time as Duke undergraduates, and to that end, I wanted you to have some of the wisdom distilled and shared by earlier students and advisors. You'll of course find your own way, and make your own mistakes, but I hope that some of these pieces of distilled wisdom will help you navigate Duke happily and successfully. And in case you'd like to follow up on any of this -- or indeed for any other reason -- I have regular office hours and lunches with students and I hope you'll take me up on that sometime this year. I realize that your heads are spinning with all you are trying to absorb and remember in these first few days, so I'll conclude by sharing one image that I have used three or four times at Convocation across the eleven years I've been in this job. Every time I use it, students and parents tell me, when they run into me at the Senior Class picnic the day before Commencement four years later, that they still remember this particular piece of wisdom and that they found it especially arresting. Thus if you only recall one thing from this speech, this next image may well be it. The context: before I became a college president, I specialized in the political philosophy of pre-revolutionary France. One of my very favorite authors was Michel de Montaigne, who wrote a book for which he coined a new title that has become a common noun: Essais. As many of you know, the French root of this word means to try, to experiment, to give things a chance and see what happens. And this is what Montaigne did in his book, providing accounts of his explorations of the world, both the world outside (he was an inveterate traveler) and the world within himself. Montaigne's favorite place to write was the tower library on his estate, to which he climbed by a series of narrow stairs reaching the very top of his domain, with a view of vineyards and grainfields, a ceiling carved with some of his favorite quotations, and lines of books around the shelves. When you go to France you can still see that library and understand vividly what his life was like more than four hundred years ago. Here Montaigne would retreat each day to think and write his essays. Montaigne hit upon a lovely image that I commend to you: the image of the "back room" of the mind '" an "arriere-boutique {back shop} all our own entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude." He thought of his own mind as a kind of tower library to which he could retreat even when he was far away from home, filled with quotations from wise people and experimental thoughts and jokes and anecdotes, where he could keep company with himself. He suggested that we all have such back rooms in our minds, and that the most valuable and attractive people we know have rich and fascinating intellectual furniture in those spaces. You might think of your own university education as a way of furnishing that back room of your mind. Over the decades of your life you will spend time with many different people'"family, friends, colleagues'"but the person you will spend most time with is yourself. With a well-furnished back room, you will enjoy your solitude, when you either choose to be alone or find yourself in circumstances where you are alone; you will also find that others seek you out for your wit and conversation, not avoid you as an airhead or a bore. Fortunately, you don't have to complete the project in time to get your baccalaureate degree. In fact, the wonderful thing about a good education is that, unlike most consumer goods, it gets better the more you use it. It improves rather than depreciates with age. If you use your time at Duke wisely, you will not just complete the required number of courses and get that diploma. You will prepare for a lifelong odyssey in which you will keep learning, keep experimenting, remain mentally adventurous and continually update and redecorate the back room of your mind throughout your life. Among the many kinds of space that I have mentioned in this speech, from East Campus to cyberspace, this may well be the most important space of all. Meanwhile, many people at Duke are eager to get to know you, and share your journey in the years ahead. Most immediately, I look forward to meeting you and your families at the picnic following this convocation, and then to having the members of each residence hall over to my house in the next few weeks in a tradition that one source unfortunately labeled "Desert with the President." It's not the latest episode of Survivor, but rather a chance to sample some desserts and meet faculty and administrators. And most important: my very best wishes to each and every one of you -- members of the Duke Class of 2007.