President Keohane, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, parents, friends and members of the class of 2004, good morning.
I want to begin by thanking you very, very much for the honorary degree. I know I speak for my fellow honorees in saying how grateful we all are. As the class of 2004 well knows, a degree is a precious thing. And it is very satisfying to work hard and earn one. And it is an utter delight to receive one simply for showing up.
This is, as you all know, Nan Keohane's final commencement as president of Duke. Her record as an educator and innovator will set the standard for those who follow. She has prepared this university for the new century by strengthening community ties, opening the door to international education, improving the status of women, and further burnishing Duke's reputation for excellence in all fields.
I congratulate her. She is a true credit to her profession--and to the color blue.
Now it is no secret that some students attending other schools are resentful because Duke is so accomplished.
They simply can't deal with the fact that not only do your basketball teams go to the Final Four with astonishing regularity, most of your athletes graduate with refreshing frequency.
This university understands that without education a good jump shot will only get you so far-and that graduation is every bit as vital a goal for any student as the Final Four.
That is what makes today such a dramatic turning point for all of you.
To the parents of the class of 2004, I can only say the moment has finally come.
Having attended the graduations of my three daughters, I expect you are thinking with some amazement about how short the interval is between diapers and diplomas.
If you are like me, your emotions are mixed-you feel a little bit sad, a little relieved, a little astonished, and totally proud.
To the students, I say congratulations. Graduation is one of the five great milestones of life; the others being birth, death, marriage and the day you finally pay off your student loan.
Today is a time for celebration, for looking back and admitting that all the hard work of reading and writing and studying and cramming before tests was worth it.
In the future, you will recall this ceremony and you will understand that today, May 9, 2004, was the day you first began to forget everything you learned in college.
But as the names of dead European kings and the body parts of dissected frogs begin to fade, the true value of your days here at Duke will become more and more apparent.
For although you have learned a great deal about the world around you; chances are you have learned even more about yourself.
That is vital, because from this day forward, you will have to rely not on grades or guidance from professors to tell you how you are doing and where you stand.
You will have to rely, instead, on an inner compass; and whether that compass is true will determine whether you become a drifter who is blown about by every breeze; or a doer, able to chart your own course and unafraid, when necessary, to set sail against the strongest wind.
Today is a day of joy and for approaching the future with optimism, yet in our high spirits we cannot but be conscious of shadows.
These include the shock of terror.
The sorrow of innocent lives lost to war, disease and other plagues.
The insecurity and injustice resulting from the gap between rich and poor around the world.
And the uncertainty caused by confusion, terrible mistakes and ongoing violence in Iraq.
There is a temptation to withdraw mentally from such perils, as if focusing our thoughts elsewhere might cause them to vanish.
But avoidance is no way to live life.
One of the most moving stories to come out of September 11, 2001 involved a passenger on United Flight 93, which went down in Pennsylvania.
That passenger, Tom Burnett, called his wife from the hijacked plane, having realized by then that two other planes had crashed into the World Trade Center.
"I know we're going to die," he said. "But some of us are going to do something about it."
And because they did, many other lives were saved.
Since that awful morning, the memory of their heroism has inspired us.
It should also instruct us.
Because when you think about it, "I know we're going to die," is a wholly unremarkable statement.
Each of us here this morning could say the same.
It is Burnett's next words that were both matter of fact and electrifying.
"Some of us are going to do something about it."
Those words, it seems to me, convey the fundamental challenge put to us by life.
We are all mortal.
And what divides us is the use we make of the time and opportunities we have.
Another way of thinking about the same question is to consider the recent discovery of similarities between the genetic code of a human being and that of a mouse. Thank you, Dr. Smithies.
We are ninety-five percent the same.
Perhaps each night, we should ask ourselves what we have done to prove there is a difference.
After all, mice eat and drink and groom themselves and chase each other's tails, and try to avoid risk.
How does our idea of "have a nice day" differ from that?
Of course, in this modern age, the hectic pace of life is our all-purpose excuse.
We spend so much time using time-saving devices we neglect to leave time for what really counts.
We may have the right intentions, but instead of acting upon them, we decide to wait - until we are out of school, until we can afford a downpayment on a home, until we can finance college for our own children, or until we can free up time in retirement.
We keep waiting until we run out of "untils."
When we were very young, we did not acknowledge there are limits to what we may someday do. This is human nature, especially in America.
When we get older, we come to recognize that not every dream is possible.
But we also learn that the investment of energy, the gaining of experience, and the application of knowledge is empowering.
One day, you look around and see that there are things you can do that others cannot.
All of a sudden, you are looked up to for leadership.
All of a sudden, you realize that you really can make a difference if only you have the courage to embrace challenges that truly test your character and skills.
It is not my intention this morning to place the weight of the world upon your shoulders -- for that is always to be the job of your parents.
But I do hope that when you accept your diplomas, you will do so with a determination to make the most out of life and to search always for more and better ways to give.
I hope you will reach for that degree with confidence even if you are not truly certain at the moment about your own ability to cope, carve out a niche and excel.
I urge you to have faith because perhaps someday you will write a poem that elevates the mind; another a song that engenders love; and a third a book shedding new light upon the mysteries of life.
Perhaps one of you will follow in the footsteps of Richard Goldstone and become a global champion of human rights and law; or heed the example of Oliver Smithies and explore the farthest frontiers of medical research; or join Phillip Griffiths in helping to inspire the spirit of scientific inquiry throughout the developing world.
Perhaps one of you will devise a new foreign policy doctrine that spells out the right role for America in the world--somewhere between isolationism that shuns global problems, and neo-imperialism that leaves us grappling with the hardest problems virtually alone.
Or perhaps one of you will become President of the United States and thereby make her alma mater very, very proud.
I have tried today to speak with a light touch, but I don't mean to make light of the seriousness of the challenges this generation of college graduates will face.
Those challenges are complex and daunting, but there is it seems to me one principle that can serve as a guide.
That principle shapes our understanding of the difference between right and wrong; it provides the glue that holds our national community together; and it resides at the very heart of democracy itself.
That principle is simply this - that every individual counts.
If we truly believe that, reflect upon it, and act upon it as a nation and in our own lives, we will have the basis for unity within our borders and solidarity with freedom-loving people around the world.
We will take and hold the high ground against the terrorists who say murder is pleasing to God.
We will steadily erode the legitimacy of dictators and tyrants who claim virtual divinity for themselves.
We will gain from the contributions of all our citizens.
And we will live up to our own founding ideals.
And with this principle in mind, I hope each member of the class of 2004 will use the knowledge gained here at this magnificent university to be more than a consumer of liberty, but also a defender and an enricher of it, employing your talents to heal, help and teach.
I hope you will be doers not drifters, and that you will not wait to live life boldly, with largeness of spirit and generosity of heart.
I hope you will insist on being treated with respect, and earn that respect by returning the favor to those you meet as you journey forward from this day.
It is said that all work that is worth doing is done in faith.
This morning, I hope you will each embrace the faith that every challenge surmounted by your energy; and every problem solved by your wisdom; every soul awakened by your passion; and every barrier to justice brought down by your determination will ennoble your own lives, inspire others, and explode outward the boundaries of what is achievable on this earth.
So, to the Class of 2004, I say again, "congratulations." Go get em! And thank you so much for making me one of you. Thank you.