Transcript of 2006 Student Graduation Speech

Yazan Kopty delivers the student commencement talk.

-Thank you Provost Lange ! -Salutations: President Brodhead, Dr. Franklin, Members of the Board of Trustees, fellow graduates, parents, family, and friends:

-Mom and Dad--sorry I didn't tell you that I'd be up here, it's been quite a project trying to make sure you don't find out. Mom and Teta, Happy Mother's Day.

Separation anxiety set in for most of us a couple of months ago. That week before Spring Break when all we wanted to do was get away from the job hunting; the constant mailbox checking for grad school acceptances and rejections; that moment when you get to the top of a rollercoaster and realize that the next few seconds will be frightening, exhilarating, and over before you have time to register any of it. Friends started pulling away, acquaintances tried to get closer, everyone was getting on your nerves, and all you could think about was how much you were going to miss them.

Provost Peter Lange introduced Yazan with the following remarks:

President Brodhead, Chairman Steel, Members of the Class of 2006, your parents, relatives and friends, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished guests and friends of the University, it is my pleasure to introduce to you, Yazan Kopty, the Class of 2006 student speaker.

Yazan is a remarkable young man with an outstanding academic career and a profound engagement with the world beyond Duke, through service and research. In this spring when so much of the wondrous good of this place and its students has been obscured by sad events and relentless media coverage, it is wonderful that today this class can be represented by a young man of Yazan's background and interests.

For years Duke has emphasized to our undergraduates that, beyond the classroom, learning should happen through international experience, contact with, and understanding and respect for, persons of very diverse backgrounds and through service beyond the University, whether in Durham or the world beyond our city. Increasingly we have also stressed that growth and maturity comes through our students helping to shape their own intellectual development by the ways they select their courses and by undertaking individual research. These are the qualities a Duke education must embody and promote.

Yazan is an ideal representative of your class because his life before and at Duke fully embodies so many of these values that each of you has lived during your four years here. And he has done this with! yes! those other special features of Duke, a playful spirit of comradeship and an ability to have "fun", including increasingly through activities like enjoyment of the arts that expand the mind and enrich the spirit.

Born in Colorado, Yazan has lived extensive parts of his life in Jordan, Belgium and the Arab Emirates. His parents are both foreign born, in, as he told me, troubled regions. His mother Lena's family is Palestinian and came to this country in 1967. His father Ramzey's mother was Cuban, his father's father was also Palestinian, born in Nazareth. Today his parents live in Belgium.

Not surprisingly, Yazan grew up speaking multiple languages: English, French and Arabic, and he developed what can only be called a taste for languages, as he is now adding Italian and Hebrew to his repertoire.

Yazan has been an outstanding student at Duke: twice on the Dean's list; four times on the Dean's list with distinction, majoring in International Comparative Studies, with minors in English and Religion. He graduates with departmental honors after being awarded "Distinction" on his senior thesis, about which more in a moment. He has also been a member of the Nasher Museum Student Advisory Board and Dukes and Duchesses .

Between his sophomore and junior years Yazan did the Duke in the Mediterranean program, studying Islamic civilization and modern Mediterranean literature, and he followed that with a study abroad semester in the Duke in Venice program.

All these threads came together last summer when Yazan, with funding from several Duke programs designed to foster individual overseas research, spent a remarkable summer conducting interviews with Palestinian refugee populations in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the West Bank. That led to a summer research project and provided the basis for his outstanding senior thesis: The Specter Nation: Palestinian Refugees, Nationalism and the Right of Return. His research in the camps also resulted in a photo exhibit that was displayed in the John Hope Franklin Center this past month.

Next year Yazan will be abroad again, having won a Hart Leadership Program Fellowship which will take him to Cambodia for ten months where he will work in a community-based non-governmental organization. Thereafter, Yazan currently intends to go to Law School.

Members of the Class of 2006, their parents, relatives and friends, distinguished guests and friends of the University, in a year in which it has often been easy to forget the wonders of our students and the ways our great University can foster growth of the mind and character for those willing to seize the opportunities that lie before them, it seems most fitting that I present to you a young man who has made the most of his Duke experience to develop both his intellect and his spirit by following his passions, your 2006 class speaker, Yazan Kopty.

When we arrived at Duke, we walked around looking up at everything in awe. The chapel towering over West Campus, the sun breaking through Gothic arches, upperclassman who knew that the Robertson bus doesn't take you to East Campus but rather Chapel Hill. As we have been preparing to leave, we were given the chance to see Duke from the top of our chapel, looking down on everything with nostalgic familiarity--inspecting the tiny people that bring Duke to life, trying to imagine the countless buses we squeezed to get on, and the hours spent talking to friends on the chapel steps.

Duke has meant something different to each of us, the good, the basketball. The thing about Duke is that everyone is so excited to be here that the energy is palpable. There is a vibrancy and newness and sense of possibility, that carries us as students, motivates you as teachers and staff, and makes an impression on those watching us--and indeed we know there are many people watching us, looking out for the good, the bad, the basketball.

We are a community diverse in thought and background: the kind of terrain that is never easy to navigate. Take it from my own experience, as I have spent my whole life learning to walk through such terrains--through countries, and communities, and schools that are divided and diverse and marked by difference--so I know how challenging and uncomfortable and sometimes exhausting that process can be--but I also know that it is remarkably rewarding, and powerful, but most of all, necessary.

I know that graduation speeches are notorious for trying to impart grand messages on a sea of overwhelmed and overheated people, but since this is the first speech of the morning, I decided to go ahead and squeeze one in anyway. As we receive our prestigious Duke degrees this morning, I can't help but be reminded of how small the world continues to get for the educated and elite, while others, both at home and abroad, are forgotten or left behind. Be they Palestinian refugees, trafficked children in Cambodia, or the residents of the lower 9th ward in New Orleans--their voices are not as loud or powerful or influential as ours, so let's not forget to listen for them. None of us were born into a balanced and equitable world. None of our children will be born into such a world either.

But what I ask you to remember is that while we are the lucky ones, we're all in this together. As individuals, as a university, as a community, let us embrace this challenge of becoming invested in each other's security and well-being. Indeed, this is the challenge of the global era and I can't think of a better place to start than at Duke, with Dukies--that awkward and impressive breed of intellect, energy, innovation, and let's face it, a little bit of southern charm. If you Northerners have a hard time shaking off your Southern inflections when you go home, try going back to Europe and pulling out a "y'all" at your high school reunion.

It's not just Duke's Southern charms, becoming a Dukie means that we share a motivation and desire to push ourselves that much further, growing to expect a little more from our potential everyday. While we are struggling with letting go of so many things, let's not forget that we still have this intensity and drive to hold onto and push us towards success in our future lives.

* * *

Just watching people these past few weeks, I've noticed how much tighter you hug people when you're not sure when you'll see them again. Let's face it, it hasn't been easy getting to this day. It hasn't always been easy for the past twenty-plus years and it hasn't been easy the past few weeks.

As students we have been in the graduation daze from the second we put our robes on this morning, if not before: looking at everything around us from buildings to faces with heightened senses, hoping to memorize everything in the hours we have left, forgetting that we have already done so with each day we spent here. We look into our friends' faces and we see ourselves. We see our hopefulness, our excitement, our anticipation, and how much we've grown since arriving here a few short years ago. We can barely articulate how we feel but its ok because we know and that's enough.

Our parents have been waiting and dreading this moment since we were born. When we left for college, they knew that we were still kids at heart. Now they look at the young men and women we've become and find themselves as speechless as we are. For lack of words, just turn around and blow your parents a kiss, give them a wave; it's Mother's Day after all, and they know the gratitude and love that these simple gestures mean today.

Our families held us up when we were learning to walk, while we were learning to become adults, and amidst the uncertainties of moving on, they once again become our ground and the arms that keep us steady. The best friends we've made have become our family too and they will be with us through this uncertainty and others.

For now, savor the goodbyes and welcome the new beginnings and remember that four years ago, we were doing the same exact thing--and everything has turned out fine.