Nowicki to Class of 2017: Produce Pearls

Dean Steve Nowick welcomes the Class of 2017.  Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography
Dean Steve Nowick welcomes the Class of 2017. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

I've already had the pleasure of meeting some of you in person, beginning with Nataly, whose acquaintance I made way back in April in Palm Beach, followed just a week later by Luke and Caroline, the second and third members of your class I got to know, at a delightful dinner in Cincinnati. I ran into three or four more of you in Washington DC in June, and then more of you in New York, and more and more of you across the summer.  In those early days of the Class of 2017. I had to travel to where you live to get to know you.  But now, you've made it to Durham, where I live, so I can meet you all in person without having to rack up so many frequent flyer miles. Where I live is now where you live.

As the Spanish phrase goes, ''Mi casa, su casa.''  Or, I suppose I could say, ''Mi universidad, su universidad.'' In whatever language, it's great to have you all here at last.

As I've pondered what I might say to you on this, the threshold of your Duke education, an image comes to mind that might seem a bit odd at first.  But hear me out.  That image is of oysters.  Yes, you heard me right, oysters.  As I look at you -- Duke's Class of 2017-- I'm thinking oysters.  

When you think of oysters, some of you might think of a tasty treat to be eaten with a little cocktail sauce.  The biologists among you might be thinking about the fantastic diversity of bivalves found in the Molluscan order Ostreoida.  And still others of you might think that oysters are simply things you don't want to walk on in your bare feet at the beach, because they're kind of nasty on the outside. 

Oysters are indeed nasty on the outside and, for some of us at least, a real delicacy on the inside.  But that's not why I'm thinking about oysters at the moment.  Rather, when I see an oyster, I think about the potential for a pearl to be formed inside of it.  And when I look at you right now, Class of 2017, I see just over 1,700 potential pearls, waiting to be formed.

I don't know the depth of your oyster knowledge, but I'll tell you just a few things about them.  The first thing is that not all kinds of oysters produce pearls.  This fact is not particularly essential to my point right now, but I want to get it out there so that those of you who are marine biologists don't send me tweets correcting my taxonomy.  Let's just imagine that the kinds of oysters that can't form pearls didn't get into Duke.

The second fact is more relevant, and it's this:  Of those oysters that can form pearls, not all do.  The so-called ''pearl oysters'' all have the potential to form a pearl, but that potential is only realized by some oysters and not by others.  And this fact brings me to my point, which is to ask you to think about the difference.  Why do some oysters form a pearl while others do not?

The answer is simple: Those oysters that form pearls do so because they're uncomfortable.  Not too uncomfortable, just a little uncomfortable.  You've probably heard this:  An oyster forms a pearl when a grain of sand becomes lodged inside its shell.  That grain of sand irritates the oyster; it makes the oyster just a little uncomfortable.  Of course, the oyster has no way to get rid of the sand, so what it does instead is to cover that grain of sand with layer upon layer of a remarkable substance called ''nacre,'' and this nacre forms a smooth capsule around the sand grain, preventing it from further irritating the oyster.  It's this smooth capsule made of of layer upon layer of nacre that we call a pearl.

Pearls also happen to be beautiful, which is why they've been prized by people as valuable gemstones since ancient times.  It's the layers of nacre that make a pearl a thing of beauty, because nacre interacts with light in a particular way that makes the pearl's surface both lustrous and iridescent.  The physics of this has to do with how the layers of nacre refract light rays.  Light falling on the surface of a pearl is reflected back with subtle patterns of color and sheen that shift depending on how you look at it.  It's this subtle, shifting reflection that makes a pearl a thing of great beauty.  And this all comes about because a grain of sand made an oyster just a little uncomfortable.

Perhaps it's becoming clear to you where I'm going with all this.  Every oyster can form a pearl, but only those that become a little uncomfortable actually do so.  So, too, with you.  As I look out at you -- Duke's Class of 2017 -- I see enormous potential.  But it's still only potential.  Realizing that potential is yet to come.  Dean Guttentag has just extolled your virtues and told us what fabulous people you all are, and correctly so.  That’s why you were chosen to be here today.  But as much as you've accomplished to get here, you've only just begun.  Why aren't you called Duke's ''Class of 2013''?  After all, you were chosen and brought together to form our newest class this year, in 2013.  Why not index your identity as a class by the year you arrive at Duke, instead of the year you leave?  The reason is that you still have to realize your enormous potential.  Our shared task for the next four years is to help you to realize this potential to its fullest, each as an individual and collectively as the Class of 2017. 

And that brings me back to oysters.  Just as it's the irritation of a grain of sand that unlocks the potential for an oyster to make a pearl, I suggest to you that the best thing you can do in your time at Duke is to allow yourself to be a little uncomfortable along the way.  Not too uncomfortable -- I'm not asking you to make yourself miserable -- but I am asking you to get out of your comfort zone, to get a little uncomfortable, because doing so will help you unlock your potential, and like the oyster, form your pearl.

Now, I do know that you're not really oysters, so let me drop that analogy for a moment and tell you as students why I'm asking you to be a little uncomfortable.  It's totally human to want to be comfortable.  We're programmed to seek comfort; it's a most natural thing for us to do.  And if we don't think about it, we'll always act in a way that keeps us comfortable.  So then, why should I ask you to make yourselves a little uncomfortable?

This is because being comfortable means sticking with the familiar, with what we already know.  We find comfort in things that already fit us, like a comfortable old pair of shoes.  We find comfort in things we already know we enjoy, like ''comfort foods.'' We find comfort in things we already understand, like a book we've read over and over, or a movie we've watched a dozen times and could easily watch again.  We find comfort in people who are like ourselves -- our family and our old familiar friends.

There's nothing wrong with this -- as I said, it's human nature to seek comfort, and I'm certainly not saying you should abandon all that's familiar and comforting to you now that you're at Duke.

But, if you only try out things that you already know suit you, you miss the chance of finding new dimensions to yourself, and thus the opportunity to understand yourself more deeply.  If you only seek out ideas that are familiar, and perspectives you already understand and know you agree with, you lose the chance of encountering ideas that could transform and clarify the way you think.  If you only make friends with people who already seem familiar because they're so much like you, you might miss the chance to meet that one person who could change your life, even though that person is as different from you as night is from day.

You could spend your time at Duke being comfortable.  There are about 1,700 of you who just joined Duke, not to mention the 5,000 or so sophomores, juniors, and seniors who will return in a couple of days -- surely, there are dozens of people here who are just like you, and with whom you could comfortably spend all your time.  There are almost 2,000 courses taught at Duke each semester! -- surely, you could find classes here to fill out your curriculum in a way that you know will fit your current interests and keep you going in the direction you already think you're headed.  There are over 400 clubs and other student organizations at Duke -- surely, you could find more than enough groups to join that fit the way you already think and that do the things you already know you can do.

On the other hand, if you allow yourself to become just a little uncomfortable, by trying new things you're not sure you'll like, by exploring new ideas you're not sure you understand or agree with, by seeking out people who are different from you, and who think differently than you do -- these are the grains of sand that will, if you allow them to make you just a little uncomfortable, help bring out your full potential and help you form your pearl.

Let me go back to how oysters make pearls, because -- although what I'm asking you to do is, of course, very different (I really do know you're not molluscs)  there's another part to this analogy I'd ask you to consider.

You see, this stuff called ''nacre'' that I mentioned earlier, which is the stuff that's layered around a sand grain to make a pearl -- it's an interesting substance in its own right.  It's made by combining two things.  One of those things is just calcium --calcium carbonate to be precise -- which the oyster draws from its aquatic environment.  The other thing is a mixture of biological molecules -- various organic polymers, as the scientists call them --that the oyster itself makes.  Neither substance on its own is beautiful.  The calcium carbonate would look like chalk dust by itself, and the biological polymers would look like -- well, like snot.  It's only the careful combination of these two, in a finely filigreed and layered pattern, that results in the lustrous iridescence that makes pearls so beautiful and so valuable.

The reason I give you this added oyster fact is that I'm sometimes asked what the real value is of going to a university like Duke.  Why not just get a high-speed Internet connection or a good smartphone – it's an easier, faster, and cheaper way to find out pretty much anything you need to know, from nuclear physics, to economic policy, to Aristotelian philosophy, to contemporary criticism of Shakespeare.  It's true that much if not all of the information you'll acquire during your time at Duke could be had without ever having to set foot on this campus.  But this misses the point.  Information is not knowledge, and it certainly is not wisdom.  You didn't come to college simply to acquire a bunch of information.  That would be like the oyster coating a sand grain with only the calcium carbonate it draws from its environment.  This wouldn't sooth the oyster, nor would it form a beautiful pearl -- it would just make a bigger stone.

Remember, the nacre that forms a pearl is an exquisite combination of material from the environment and substances the oyster itself contributes to hold it all together in finely patterned layers, accumulated over time.  And here's the point of this added elaboration of my oyster analogy:  It isn't enough to just learn stuff -- that you could indeed do with just a smartphone, without ever even changing out of your pajamas.  Instead, you need to work with the stuff you learn -- you need to contribute to it, to modify it, to bind it all together  -- you need to add your own substance to transform information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom, just like the oyster has to add its own substance to the material it draws from the environment to make a pearl.  And this is the value of you being here, at Duke, right now, in the company of others who are -- in myriad ways -- each seeking to form their own pearl.  It's only through this community of collective interchange and shared experience -- the community you'll find here at Duke -- that you'll best be able to create and contribute your own substance, and in so doing produce the nacre of your wisdom, the pearl of your education.

I end with this thought:  Because the finest quality pearls are prized as objects of beauty, the word ''pearl'' has become a metaphor for something very rare, fine, admirable, and valuable.  This metaphor applies to you, Class of 2017.  We look forward to watching your luster grow over the next four years, and I welcome you to Duke.