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Undergraduate Dean: Watch How You Program Your GPS

Undergraduate Dean: Watch How You Program Your GPS

Nowicki tells Class of 2014 to make their education a journey

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Editor's Note: The following prepared remarks were presented by Steve Nowicki, dean of undergraduate education, at the undergraduate convocation Aug. 25 in Duke Chapel.

Dean Steve Nowicki encourages the Class of 2014 during the new student convocation
Dean Steve Nowicki encourages the Class of 2014 during the new student convocation Photo credit: Megan Morr

Durham, NC - Mr. President, colleagues, parents and family members, and most especially you, the young women and men seated in front of me, Duke's Class of 2014: Allow me to begin with a true story. Three weeks ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of traveling to Prague. It's a charming place, filled with winding cobblestone streets, interesting shops, and all sorts of fabulous art and architecture spanning hundreds of years of thought and history. One afternoon, as we were relaxing in an outdoor café on the main Old Town square, I noticed a youngish couple walking across the way. This couple caught my eye because the guy was wearing a Duke shirt. As they got closer, I thought to say hello.

So I walked up to this couple and said, "Hey, I'm from Duke. Are you?" And this is what the guy said; his exact words: He said "No... but I wish I were!" After I got over the momentary disappointment of not having bumped into a fellow Dukie, it occurred to me: What an extraordinary thing to hear some four and a half thousand miles from Durham! This fellow went on to tell me that his Duke shirt was a gift from his wife's brother, who worked at Duke Medical School, that they had visited Duke, thought it was a beautiful place, loved the Chapel, and so on. And then he went on to say another thing that was extraordinary to hear in a chance conversation with a stranger in central Europe. He said, "Duke students are terrific, aren't they? They must be really fun to teach." You can imagine at this point I was ready to buy this young couple a drink, but we both had places to go, so we parted company, new best buddies.

That story brings me to this moment. At some point in the not-so-distant past, if I had bumped into any of you by chance and asked you if you were from Duke, you probably would have responded something like "No, but I wish I were." Or perhaps you might have responded, with some panache, "Not yet, but I hope to be soon!" Well, those days are behind us, aren't they? Because none of you have to wish you were from Duke any longer; now you are from Duke!

And that's something worth celebrating. Although we're gathered here in solemn ceremony amidst the hallowed stones of Duke Chapel, I would think it understandable - indeed laudable - if you, Duke's newest students, felt like letting off some energy to celebrate this moment. I'll even lead you in this endeavor. Here's the drill: On three, I want you to shout - as loud as you can - "Go Duke!"

Now that I know you're so good at collective cheering, I'll ask for another outburst in a moment, this one directed to those watching these proceedings remotely.

But first, to you parents and family members: I apologize that we don't have room for you in the Chapel along with your children. Perhaps that's for the better. I say this because, with this convocation, your children have become our students. In a short while, you'll be leaving, and they'll be staying here with us. Don't despair! They will come home from time to time - perhaps less frequently than you'd like and perhaps laden with more dirty laundry than you'd care to wash - but they will return. And when they do come home, and you see how they've found new interests and talents that you didn't know they had, and when you find they're not acting quite like you remember your children acting but instead are acting like fascinating adults whom you're are proud to know actually are your children; - and when they tell you things like "Hey, Mom, I'm going to Borneo this summer to work with an NGO"; or "Hey, Dad, I just landed the venture capital I need for my start-up"; - or when they say "Guess what? I just landed a job in Prague"; or any number of things children aren't expected to say; - when your children come home and say things like this, then you'll know you did the right thing to leave them here with us, so we can get on with the important work of education.

But not without a big thank you first! Our Class of 2014 wouldn't be here without you - we all know that! So what do you say, Class of ‘14? Now that we know how good you are at cheering, let's give a big shout out to your families. Same drill: On three, everyone call out as loud as they can, "Thank you!"

That's your cue, mom and dad, to have one more hug after lunch and say goodbye for now to your daughters and sons.

Now let me turn my remarks to you, Class of ‘14. I want to mention a different kind of chance encounter I had in Prague a few weeks ago. Another charming thing about that city is that it's easy to get lost there, but not too lost. The narrow streets wind this way and that, following paths set down hundreds of years ago, maybe even a thousand years ago, certainly not by modern city planners. There's a virtue in the unpredictability of the paths you might follow when wandering in such a city. For example, I didn't know (or perhaps I'd forgotten) that Mozart's famous opera Don Giovanni premiered in Prague. What a fun surprise it was, then, when - a bit lost in the maze of cobblestone streets - my wife and I stumbled upon the theater in which the premier had actually been performed. It was a small thrill to find ourselves, quite unexpectedly, in the building where that remarkable piece of music had been first heard by an audience almost two and a quarter centuries earlier.

I mention this second chance Prague encounter not because it was an inherently profound experience (although we thought it was pretty cool), but rather because it suggests an image for different ways you might approach your next four years at Duke. You see, my wife and I weren't looking for the theater in which Don Giovanni premiered; we were just trying to find our way back to our hotel. If we had taken a taxi, or even just used a map, we certainly would have gotten to our hotel sooner. But we were in a meandering mood, we got a bit lost, and as a result we found something delightful that we didn't even know we were looking for.

Nowadays, there's almost no reason to get lost anywhere in the world. We have these wonderful devices called "GPS"s that tell you exactly where you are, and - even better - that tell you how to get to any other place in the most direct and efficient fashion. I had to drive to a meeting in downtown Atlanta, for example. This is a big city and not one I know my way around. But no matter! I just typed the address into my GPS and followed the instructions: Turn left here, take this highway, turn right there, take the ramp, another right, merge to the left, turn right, right again, and so on. I didn't have pay attention to where I was, I didn't even have to think about it, I just followed instructions and ended up where I asked the GPS to take me.

So what does this have to do with your time at Duke? Well, here you are, about to embark on a trip of a different sort, a four-year long trip that we call a "college education," and there are different ways you could approach that trip. You could find some sort of collegiate GPS, plug in your desired destination, and then follow its instructions dutifully. Indeed, we have the equivalent of a basic GPS here at Duke - it's called our curriculum. If your only destination is a Duke degree (which is a very good destination, indeed!), then you just have to follow the curricular requirements we've laid out and - voila! - in four years time you should have no trouble achieving your Duke degree.

You may have other, more specific destinations in mind as well. Perhaps you want to be a brain surgeon, perhaps a novelist or a musician or a staff writer for the Colbert Report, or perhaps a business leader or philosopher, or perhaps someone who invents cool things, such as nanospheres that deliver anti-cancer agents more efficiently to tumors, or a more efficient storage battery for electric cars. These specific destinations for your education would cause you to think more specifically about the parts of our curriculum and co-curricular programs that you'll plug into during your time at Duke. This is all to the good, and we stand ready to provide you with GPS-like guidance to help you find your way.

But let me suggest an additional way you might think about the trip you're about to embark on, one in which you allow yourself to meander a bit and maybe even get a little lost once in a while. I'm not just talking about the kinds of courses you enroll in, although that's a big part of it. I'm also talking about the things you choose to do outside of class, the people you hang out with, the clubs you join, the books you read, the activities you pursue. Let's think for a moment what this different kind of trip through Duke might entail.

I can set the GPS in my car to calculate routes in different ways. I can ask it to find the quickest route, for example, in which case my GPS will guide me onto major highways and main thoroughfares. But while the well-beaten paths that such guidance will lead me down are no doubt faster, they're also more predictable. And, as a result, they're often less interesting; indeed, less challenging.

But I also can tell my GPS to avoid interstates and superhighways. When I do this, the device diligently works to find a path to my destination, but that path mostly follows smaller, less-well-travelled byways, and in so doing, it invariably sets me up for some surprises. I was driving from upstate New York to western Pennsylvania a while back, for example. The most efficient way to do this - as those of you who live in that part of the world will know - is to follow I-90 or I-86 west, and then I-79 south, and this is what my GPS suggested to me in a most helpful manner. But I was in a meandering mood that day, so I challenged my GPS to avoid these major roads as it decided how to take me where I wanted to go. And so it did. As a result, I sometimes found myself driving down roads that seemed nothing more than tractor paths through farmers' fields, and I have to admit to feeling disconcertedly lost in a few such places. But at other points along the way, I found myself driving along breathtaking ridges and through extraordinarily valleys in the Alleghany Plateau, places of great natural beauty that I would never have had occasion to experience otherwise. And then, to my surprise, I found myself at the spot in Pennsylvania where Edwin Drake had drilled the very first oil well a hundred and fifty years earlier, an event that launched the modern petroleum industry. Much like the concert hall in Prague where Mozart's Don Giovanni was first performed, I could have guessed such a place existed, but it never would have occurred to me to visit it. And that unplanned visit gave me a valuable moment to ponder the significance of that event, and how it changed the course of human history and the face of our planet forever. All along the path I followed that day, I encountered small, friendly places devoid of the usual interstate selection of mega-service stations and fast food, but populated instead with hometown shops and diners, places where conversation among strangers flows freely, providing insight into our shared humanity.

Let me get back to your impending Duke journey and make my point: I am not suggesting you think of your education as a leisurely drive along back roads or an aimless wander through an unknown city. When my wife and I were tramping the streets of Prague, we knew where we were headed, more-or-less; we just didn't obsess about following a map. And when I actually want to get someplace in my car, it's reassuring to know that my GPS will get me there eventually, even if I ask it to avoid the most direct route. So, too, here at Duke. We have plenty of guideposts to help you find your way to the destination of a Duke degree - not just our curriculum but also the many advisors, faculty members, and other mentors we set in your path to help you along your way. So I have great confidence you all will reach your goal.

But I am suggesting that if you only set your Duke GPS to calculate the most efficient route to get you where you think you want to go, and if you never deviate from that direct route, you stand a chance - a good chance! - of missing out on the unexpected treasures and pleasures of this university, and you stand a chance of missing out on experiences that could - who knows?! - be the most important part of your education here at Duke.

Far be it for me to tell you precisely when or how to deviate from the direct path your GPS might suggest. Only you can decide when to take a turn that isn't a scheduled part of the programmed journey. But I will make three broad suggestions about how to reprogram your GPS to optimize your Duke experience.

First, turn off the "Only Do Things I Know I'm Good At" mode on your GPS. You know what you're good at, and being good at that stuff is what got you this far. What you don't know is what you might be good at. Don't let your GPS guide you only to those classes, clubs, or other activities in which you know you can excel. Allow yourself to experiment outside your comfort zone. Who knows what you'll discover about yourself if you allow yourself to meander into ideas and opportunities you might not otherwise encounter!

Second, turn off the "Only Make Friends with People Who Are Like Me" mode. One of the truly great resources of this university, and one of the greatest learning opportunities it affords, is the diversity of people we invite to be part of our community. If you only interact with people who come from where you come from, who talk like you, who think like you, or who look like you, you'll cut yourself off from this enormous resource, and you will diminish the good you can glean from this place. Who knows what interesting people you'll meet if you allow yourself to meander among parts of our community where there are people who are different from you!

Third, and finally, let me tell you the most important adjustment you'll want to make to your Duke GPS, which is this: Most GPSs take pleasure in finally getting you to the place you told them you want to go. You can hear this as a kind smug self-satisfaction in their digital voice as they say "Arriving at destination." But here's the thing: If you're trying to find a meeting in Atlanta or your hotel in Prague, there really is something you would want to refer to as a final destination. Not so on your educational journey! In four years, you'll receive your Duke degree. But you should see this only as a waypoint, not as a destination in and of itself, because what we most hope for you here is not simply to guide you successfully to the end of a four-year program, but rather to accelerate you on a never-ending journey of curiosity, discovery, and accomplishment, a journey that will never really have a final destination. So reprogram your GPSs to substitute that cloying phrase "Arriving at your destination" with something more adventuresome, like "Now that we're here, where are we off to next?"

Whether you're walking the streets of an old world capital, driving the byways of America, or navigating your way through Duke, you can choose to do so with an overzealous GPS imposing blinders on you, ensuring that you get to your intended destination, but doing so in a way that prevents you from being productively distracted by all the wonders you're passing by. Alternatively, you can allow yourself the rewards of meandering, sometimes taking more circuitous paths, and in so doing bumping into things you didn't know you were looking for, but which may turn out to make all the difference in the world.

And as you allow yourself to meander from time to time during your Duke experience and beyond - here in Durham, in your hometown, or in some far-flung place where you're studying, or working, or playing - I'm sure you'll someday have an experience similar to mine, when I saw that Duke shirt across the square in Prague, with the owner of that shirt being someone who isn't from Duke, but who wishes they were. And now that you've joined us as our illustrious Class of 2014, there are just over seventeen hundred new reasons - that's you! - why one would wish to be from Duke. I welcome you to our company.

 

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