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Jennifer Sherman: Ordinary Moments at Duke Become Extraordinary

Student commencement speaker reflects on the Duke events that will stay with her

Part of the Commencement 2014 Series

I'm going to trust you with the truth today. I'm afraid. There's the small fear I feel standing up in front of you. And then there's the fear of leaving, of not knowing what this next chapter is going to look like. In case anyone else was a little afraid, I just wanted you to know you're not alone.

I also feel this ache in my heart, the good kind. All of a sudden I'm noticing all these little things about this place that I haven't before, things I've been loving all this time without even knowing it.

Duke really is an extraordinary place. Before we came here, we dreamed about it. Do you remember that? We wondered what it would be like and now we know.

Today, we are celebrating an extraordinary education. The opportunities we fought for, the ones that fell into our laps. The late nights, the epiphanies and the theses finally, finally complete. We celebrate the moments we got to stand up and defend our research, the moments we showed our command of new languages and complex theories, when we moved an audience from the stage, played the game of a lifetime or fiercely debated our country's policies, the moments all eyes were on us, the moments when we were special.

But this is not the whole story.

We didn't just go to school for the past two or four or six years. We lived. There is this whole other education that has been running parallel to the one we recognize today. It doesn't come with a degree or high honors or a job offer. But it deserves to be celebrated.

This education was ordinary. This education was ordinary. It happened in the every day moments when it didn't matter if we were particularly brilliant or talented. For me, it happened in the first snowfall of my freshman year at Duke. I remember East Campus suddenly coming to life, people flooding out of their dorms and gathering on the quad, making snow angels in the half inch of snow and building tiny snowmen. I remember my classmates who had never seen snow, crying tears of joy. (This was back when we liked snow). Now, I had grown up with feet of snow every winter, but somehow I felt that joy.

My ordinary education happened when I spent so much time in Grace's cafe my junior year that now it's comforting to hear John behind the counter saying "One bubble tea please."

This education happened when we failed: we were weak. We slept too late. We let that kind professor down. We were rejected. We didn't apply for that fellowship or job because we thought maybe we just weren't good enough.

It happened when we fell in love. When we didn't do the paper because our best friend asked us to stay and talk through something hard. When everyone was going somewhere amazing for spring break or spending a summer doing research and we went home to watch our younger siblings grow up and our parents grow older.

At Duke, we have learned from extraordinary and ordinary moments. Of the two, the ordinary ones might be more important. We have been learning to innovate and inspire, to analyze and investigate. But we have also been learning to tell the truth, to take responsibility for our mistakes, to be present with grief and to forgive. We have been learning to be grown ups. We have been learning to be human.

One of the very first things I did as a Duke student was listen to Maya Angelou give her convocation address in the Chapel. She told us to carry around poems, write them down on pieces of paper and put them in our bags or pockets. And that first week of school, I did. Because when Maya Angelou tells you to do something, you do it.

Anyway, I spent that first week of school with a single line written on a scrap of paper in the front pocket of my backpack. It's from the Roman philosopher Terentius and Maya Angelou had made it the focus of her speech that year.

"I am a human being. Nothing that is human can be alien to me."

It stayed with me, through all that Duke would have to offer me, through the extraordinary dream-come true moments and the ordinary successes and failures that happen every day. While doing research half a world away, I repeated it over and over under my breath when I felt lost in a sea of people who seemed so different. And I remembered it with a jolt when I walked into the office of Counseling and Psychological Services for the first time. Duke has taught me there is nothing in the range of human experience that is off limits. You may encounter yourself in a foreign way of life and you may encounter the foreign in your own mind.

Our greatest gifts are not the things that make us extraordinary. Our greatest gifts are the things that make us human. Our flaws and vulnerabilities help us to connect, to understand and to live in pursuit of justice for others. When we fail, we give others a chance to treat our humanness with grace and compassion. When we lose people, the accomplishments and achievements don't matter so much. It's the ordinary things that suddenly become precious, the embraces, the late night conversations, the moments you laughed so hard your sides ached.

As we say goodbye to Duke, my hope is that we will be grateful for our two educations---the one that earned us our degree and the one that taught us how to be human. I hope we will think back with love on our triumphs and our failures and the people who showed us kindness through both. Congratulations, Class of 2014: you learned with patience, lived with joy and with every passing, ordinary day, you made Duke extraordinary.