Saying "humanity in the abstract will never inspire you in the same way as human beings you meet," Melinda Gates urged Duke University's graduates Sunday to use new technology to connect with others, including people in the developing world whose lives Americans can now touch in a more personal way.
"Over the course of your lives, I promise you, you will have many opportunities to use technology to make your world bigger, to meet more different kinds of people and to keep in touch with more of the people you meet," she said in the annual commencement ceremony in Wallace Wade Stadium. "I want you to connect because I believe it will inspire you to do something, to make a difference in the world."
Gates, who received undergraduate and business degrees from Duke and later served as a university trustee, said, "it is so fantastic to be back here at my alma mater." She recalled attending Duke basketball games and spending long nights writing computer code as a student, long before she became co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest transparently operated private foundation.
"The way you communicate is the single biggest difference between you now and me a generation ago," she told the graduates. Smartphones and other technologies have proliferated, even in a Kenyan slum she visited recently, making it possible for Americans to get to know people in other countries more personally.
"Your world really can become a neighborhood," Gates said, arguing that "deep human connection ... is not a tool. It's not a means to an end. It is the end -- the purpose and the result of a meaningful life -- and it will inspire the most amazing acts of love, generosity and humanity."
Watch highlights from commencement.
Delivered under a sunny sky, her address highlighted the ceremony at which Duke awarded more than 5,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees, including to those who graduated in September and December.
Gates received an honorary degree during the ceremony. The university also awarded honorary degrees to human rights activist Marguerite "Maggy" Barankitse; immune system scientist Dr. Max Cooper; archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero; Harvard professor of African-American history and literature Henry Louis Gates; investment manager William H. (Bill) Gross; and choreographer Judith Jamison.
The deans of each Duke school awarded degrees to their graduates, with the loudest cheers following the introduction by Dean Laurie Patton of the "extremely and exceptionally talented men and women of the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, who are tremendous, trailblazing, trustworthy and triumphant."
Earlier in the ceremony, student speaker Andrew Barnhill called on his fellow graduates to "be like our gargoyles -- faced both backward in remembrance and gratitude and forward with promise and courage."
A native of Wilmington who received a master’s degree from Duke's divinity school, Barnhill spoke of "sacred moments" students should treasure at Duke -- "moments filled with laughter; moments filled with awe. Through each of them, we are challenged to find our voices born in the crevice of Duke's identity as a place of innovation and a space of sacred leadership."
Barnhill described Duke as a "place, just like home, except if home had a lot of parking tickets. We have woken up each day to the am and now of this university. Tomorrow many of us will wake up where our now appears obsolete, like the 'Dillo and Tailgate, and 'what is to come' is present, like the construction zone known as the Bryan Center. But we know that before us lie new epiphanies, never rendering this place forgotten, but adding layers on the moments that have come before."
Duke President Richard H. Brodhead presided over the event in front of thousands of cheering families and others. Earlier during the weekend, in his baccalaureate address at Duke Chapel, Brodhead urged the graduates to cherish their friendships from Duke while embracing the new ties that await them. "Time to break out of this known, loved world before it becomes a limit to you," Brodhead said. "You have been living in a generational ghetto. Break out, and you can make new connections with new chances to learn and grow."
Brodhead concluded by saying, "Duke wants you to keep opening your mind to your world your whole life long. And Duke wants you to be an actor in your world, using your gifts to shape what is into what might be."
Also prior to Sunday's ceremony, Duke's graduate and professional schools held graduation events across the campus. Speakers ranged from David Yarnold, chief executive officer and president of the National Audubon Society, who addressed the Nicholas School of the Environment, to U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., who spoke at Duke Law School. Probably the longest trip to deliver a speech was made by Sheikh Mohamed Althani, Qatar's former minister for economy and commerce, who addressed graduates of the cross-continent and weekend executive programs at the Fuqua School of Business.
The main graduation ceremony was webcast live on Duke's Ustream channel and discussed live on Twitter. "Thanks Coach Cut for letting us use the field. Don't worry I left my heels at home," one Tweet said. "Melinda Gates just blew me away at Duke Graduation. Feeling so inspired," said another. Gates herself posted a Tweet of herself posing with her parents at her own Duke graduation, saying "Happy #MothersDay to my wonderful mom, Elaine. Thrilled to be at #Duke2013 today where we've made such great memories."
A team from the laboratory of Duke engineering professor David Brady used a prototype gigapixel camera during the ceremony to capture images with a resolution far exceeding that of consumer cameras. (For story and photo, click here.)
Following the main university ceremony Sunday, many of the graduates went to locations across the campus to receive their individual degrees at ceremonies organized by their schools, departments or programs. Behind the scenes, hundreds of Duke employees worked throughout the weekend to run the events, guide visitors and assist in other ways.