Dean Nowicki welcomes Class of 2013

'Seek unknown treasures and discover yourself'

Mr. President and colleagues, parents and family members, and most especially you, you spiffy young devils sitting here before me -- young Blue Devils, I should say! -- let me add my warm greetings on this momentous occasion.

Here you are at last! A year ago you were just a random collection of talented high school students scattered across the country, indeed across the world. At some point between then and now, you were admitted to Duke -- and you made the wise decision to join us -- but of course this didn't make you fully fledged Duke students yet. Over the summer you began to find yourselves -- on Facebook, by e-mail, by Twitter, or even by recognizing each other in some online world by the virtual Duke T-shirts your avatars surely began wearing.

And then, finally, you arrived in person and started to take the place over as though it were your own -- which of course it now is.

But when can we say you officially become Duke students? Actually, that time is now, at this moment, when we finally have you all assembled in one place, and especially in this magnificent chapel that stands as an icon of Duke. From this moment on, you have the great honor of being Duke's Class of 2013, and no one else in the world can claim that distinction. You will be the 86th class to graduate from Duke in our history as a university; you'll be the 161st class to graduate in our history as an institution of higher learning. And to mark this great occasion, I'd like to hear the very first cheer given by the entire Class of 2013 at once. Here's the script: On three, I want you all to shout as loud as you can: "Go Duke!"

Class of 2013, my colleagues and I congratulate you, and we welcome you to our ranks.

Now, if you'll excuse me, Class of 2013, I'd like to turn to your families for a moment. The first thing I want to say to you family members who are dropping off our Class of 2013 is "thank you." The work my colleagues and I do is only made meaningful by the students we teach, and we understand that it's you who have done so much to bring these students to where they are today. Oh sure, they worked hard, too. But we all know that they couldn't have done it without you.

Second, I want to welcome you to the Duke family. Your children are now Dukies, and -- by virtue of your close relationship to them -- so are you. Think of all of us as your in-laws now. We're glad to have you as part of our extended family, and we hope to get to know you over the next four years. In fact, what's say we make a date right now to all get together at Parents and Family Weekend this fall?

But as is the case for any in-laws, it's good to visit, but it's also good to know when it's time to leave. And so the third thing I want to say to you family members is that your time to leave is almost here. Let's finish our ceremony and have some lunch, but then it'll be time for you to say goodbye and leave us to our work.

How rude, you say! Here this guy thanks us and says we're part of the family, and then he turns around and tells us to scram! Well, the truth is, you've done much for your daughters and sons, but the best thing you can do for them now is to let go. This doesn't mean to forget about us! By all means, no! We want you to remain in close touch with your daughters and sons. But this is a time of transition and your children are now our students, our Class of 2013, and they'll do best to take the next steps without you.

Don't worry, they'll do fine.

OK, Class of 2013, now back to you. --

This is the part of the speech where I -- as wise dean, enrobed in ancient garb -- am supposed to give you -- as young impressionable students, yourselves quite smartly dressed -- some trenchant advice to help guide you through your college years. Often, this is done through the use of metaphor, by evoking some image that captures the essence of how to get the most out of your college experience.

The question is, what's the best metaphor to help you get the most out of your time at Duke? Some obvious metaphors come to mind. For example, we might think of your time in college as something like climbing a mountain. This appropriately implies the need for sustained effort, it suggests that you'll encounter unexpected challenges along the way, also likely true. And, of course, it implies that with determination, skill, and some luck you'll eventually triumph and reach the top.

That's an OK analogy, I suppose, but do we really want to think of college as a constant upward struggle? I don't think so. Sure, you'll work hard, maybe harder than you've ever worked in your life, but it shouldn't be seen as an unremitting battle against the force of gravity, with ever less oxygen to breathe as you get closer to the end. So let's abandon any sort of "struggle to achieve" metaphor and move on.

Maybe a better metaphor for college is that it's like a rite of passage. In earlier times, a rite of passage -- say, at the transition from childhood to adulthood -- might have involved fasting for days until a mystical vision was realized, or being sent into the forest to kill some fearsome animal with your bare hands, or some other arduous task designed to prove your worth in becoming a member of whatever society you belong to.

This metaphor kind of works. In our culture, you're a child before you go to college, and you're expected to be a productive adult when you graduate. During the intervening four years, you're in a unique transitional state our culture calls "being a college student." We don't ask you to fast until you have visions, or to capture wild animals with your bare hands (although one wonders about the Cameron Crazies in this regard -- ). We do ask you to accomplish certain tasks, however, and once you've completed them, you're given a diploma -- a sort token or badge indicating you're a full-fledged member of that tribe known as "college graduates."

This metaphor is OK, too, but it still doesn't quite work for me.

How about this: Let's think of your Duke career as a scavenger hunt. I'm sure you all know what a scavenger hunt is, but if not I'll remind you. This is a game in which you're given a list of things to find and sent off on the task of finding them. Whoever finds everything on the list first, wins. This game is usually made particularly fun by having a list of things to find that are both quirky and difficult to obtain. (I remember one scavenger hunt I participated in that included on the list "a piece of garden statuary no less than five feet tall." My team won, but I'll save the sordid story of how we did so for a more private moment.)

Now, you might be thinking that a scavenger hunt -- a party game, no less! -- is a pretty shallow metaphor for your Duke experience. And you'd be right, if we were talking about a normal scavenger hunt. We certainly don't want you to envision your education as just a matter of collecting a bunch of stuff simply because it appears on an arbitrary list you've been handed. But this is where I'm going to impose a novel rule on your Duke scavenger hunt, a rule that makes it both more challenging and far more worthwhile. You see, what's unique about your Duke scavenger hunt is that each of you has a different list of things to find, and none of you knows for sure what's on your list.

I can hear you asking, "What kind of game is this?" How do you go about collecting things if you don't know what it is you're supposed to collect? How will you know when you're done with your list? How will you know if you've won? Good questions all!

To start, let's admit that -- in spite of the new rule I've imposed -- you do know some of the things that are on your Duke scavenger hunt list, or at least you think you do. Some of these are things we've put there. For example, to graduate we make you take a certain number of courses across a spectrum of subjects, in a curriculum we believe provides a solid foundation for being an educated person. In the same vein, we ask you to live on campus for some number of semesters because we believe living cheek-by-jowl with your fellow Duke students contributes to the education you'll receive here. We've put these sorts of things on your list for a good reason, because we believe they provide a useful framework for your Duke experience.

But this isn't the really interesting part of your list, is it? Sure, you could graduate from Duke by following this sort of list. But if all you did with your time at Duke was to satisfy our requirements for graduation, you would have missed the real opportunity of this place!

And there surely are some things you've put on your own list already. Perhaps you think you want to be a physician or lawyer, for example. OK, that means that you need to collect a particular set of courses and an appropriately high GPA to gain admission to medical school or law school. Perhaps you want to write plays -- add joining theater groups and studying creative writing to your list. Perhaps you want to win a national championship in your sport -- then finding good coaches and practicing a lot has to be on your list. And so on. --

All of you have thoughts about what you might do with your education. And all of you chose to attend Duke because you had at least begun a list of what you thought you needed to collect during your collegiate scavenger hunt, whether you conceived of it that way or not. And you decided that Duke was the best place to find those things. And you made a good choice -- a great choice! -- because you can find all those things here.

But I assure you, this is still neither the most interesting nor the most essential part of your scavenger list. --

Here's the most important thing I'll say to you: Thinking that you know what's on your list can be as much a hindrance as it is a help because -- and this is both a hint and a warning! -- some of the things you think are on your list might not actually belong there, and the most important things on your list are very likely to be things you can't yet imagine.

Consider this, Class of 2013: There are just over 1,700 of you sitting in this chapel right now. There's a good chance -- not a certainty, but a very good chance -- that there's someone in this space right now -- someone you haven't yet met! -- who will change your life profoundly. Maybe that person is someone who'll become a lifelong buddy, someone you'll call in 30 years when you have a problem and you need a close friend to help you. Maybe that person is a future colleague who'll help you found the next Google, or help you invent a new way to generate power without carbon emissions, or help you write the screenplay to the movie that wins "Best Picture" at the Academy Awards in 2018.

Maybe that person is your future spouse. (Is he or she someone in this room you haven't met yet?) Maybe that person is just someone who's going to say something to you sometime in the next four years that changes the way you see the world. Surely you'd want to add meeting this person to your Duke scavenger list, wouldn't you?

Now think of the vast number of different ideas, different perspectives, different ways of looking at the world that the 1,700 of you sitting in this room have. Add to that the ideas and perspectives of all the faculty at this great institution, and the staff, not to mention your fellow students in the Classes of 2012, 2011 and 2010. And don't forget to add in the graduate and professional students who also enrich the intellectual landscape of this campus.

This place is a galaxy of ideas, a universe of different ways of thinking about things, of different ways of seeing the world. There's more than a good chance -- I would say it's a near certainty! -- that one or more of these ideas -- ideas you haven't yet encountered -- could change your life profoundly. If this is the case, and I believe it is, you'd surely want to add finding this new idea to your scavenger list, wouldn't you?

You see, the really important things for you to find at Duke are the different kinds of people you can meet here and the different kinds of ideas you can encounter here, both of which have the potential to transform your life in ways you can't yet imagine.

And these are the items you need to find on your scavenger hunt that you can't yet know, the items you'll eventually discover are on your list even if you didn't know it at first. These are the real treasures you'll find at Duke! So how do you find that person, that idea, that thing at Duke that could change your life? First, as in any scavenger hunt, you can't sit passively by and wait for things to come to you. You have to seek them out actively. This takes time and effort, but it'll be time and effort very well spent. I've heard students describe Duke as "exhausting." Prepare to be exhausted! But it's the good kind of tired that comes from having so much to learn, so many people to meet.

Second -- and this is different from a typical scavenger hunt -- you have to try especially hard to look for things that are not already on your list, things that don't even resemble what you think should be on your list.

If you only seek out people who already seem familiar to you, people you know you'll be comfortable with, you're likely to lose out on the chance to meet that one person who could change your life. If you only seek out ideas that seem familiar, ideas you know you'll be comfortable with, you'll lose out on the chance to encounter that one idea that could transform the way you think.

Not every new person you meet, not every unfamiliar idea you encounter, will necessarily belong on your scavenger hunt list. You'll meet new people who don't really change your life, and you'll try out new ideas that don't really alter the way you look at the world. But that's important, too, because it's by learning what doesn't really fit your list as much as by finding what does, that you'll discover the absolutely most important thing you need to find at Duke -- which is yourself.

You see, that's the secret to this game. There's really only one critical item you need to find on your scavenger hunt, and that's to find yourself. As you meet new people and encounter new ideas, what you're really doing is discovering more about who you are. You're discovering what your potential is and what your passions are, and by discovering your potential and your passions, you'll be discovering what you can do to make your mark on this world. That's the point, isn't it? In fact, that's what it means to win this game.

We didn't bring you here as bright and shiny new Duke students just to polish you up a bit more and have you add to your already impressive resumes. No, we brought you here to discover the best in yourselves. Find people here, find ideas here that will help you find your passions, that will help you find out what really matters to you. If you do this, I can assure you that the rest will take care of itself.

How will you know when you're done with your list? You can probably guess my answer to this. You're never done. In four years you'll graduate, but of course your list won't be complete then. In fact, your list will never be complete. What we hope you accomplish during your time at Duke is not to finish your scavenger hunt, but rather to develop a zeal for looking for new things, and to learn how to recognize which of those new things will help you to continue to realize your talents and use them to do good in the world. We want you to learn to enjoy this scavenger hunt so much that you'll never stop playing it.

Class of 2013, people on a scavenger hunt are usually hustling about, looking into every nook and cranny, and diligently seeking the next thing on their list. We expect nothing less of you as you seek out the treasures of this place and as you go about the important business of finding yourself through those treasures. Are you ready to play, Class of 2013? I know you are. So, on behalf of Duke I say to you: On your mark, get set, go!