Nowicki to Class of 2018: Why Are You Here?

Our mission is not just to help you launch a career but to lead a satisfying, rewarding life


Women and men of the Class of 2018 – welcome!  You may have heard the story of the famous Swallows of Capistrano.  According to folklore, precisely on March 19th every year a vast number of these birds – cliff swallows, to be exact – are supposed to return from their wintering grounds in South America to nest on the walls of the Mission San Juan Capistrano in southern California, supposedly commemorating an event that occurred centuries ago when the nests the swallows had built were all destroyed, and the birds were allowed to rebuild their nests within the mission’s walls.                              

In fact, if you’ve been to Capistrano on a March 19th recently, you might have been disappointed by the number of swallows showing up.

It’s not clear if the Swallows of Capistrano ever really made an appearance en masse on any March 19th in history, but in any event only a few happen to straggle in on that date nowadays.  Nonetheless, the town commemorates March 19th every year with a gala “Festival of the Swallows,” marked by fun and games, lots of food, and a grand parade.

Here at Duke, we also celebrate a migratory event of considerable import, one that involves only a brief parade (don’t worry, there’ll be another as we exit this ceremony), but one that is infinitely more reliable and far more significant in the scope of what it represents.  We thought of calling it "The Students of Duke Chapel" or "The Festival of Duke Students," but we settled instead on a simpler name, "Convocation."

Every year, with clock-work regularity, a flock of about 1,700 new Duke students wings its way to campus in late August, and at precisely 11 AM on the Wednesday before classes, they descend on Duke Chapel.  It’s a wondrous sight to behold – YOU are a wondrous sight to behold, Class of 2018 – and your occurrence here is made even more remarkable by the fact that you’re not just some collection of birds, but rather a very carefully selected group of the most talented students from across the planet, all flocking here at this moment, and now finally coming to roost to begin your Duke career.  And unlike swallows (even if they did ever really descend as a group on Capistrano), what makes your gathering here especially noteworthy is that each of you brings your own unique talents, ideas, and potential to this place.

You see, when we think of a flock of birds, we tend to consider any one of them as more or less interchangeable with any other.  Nothing could be further from the truth for you!  There’s no way we could substitute Sophie Caplin with Geena Gomez, and we’re fortunate to have both Sophie and Geena as part of the Class of 2018.  Nor could we swap Mohamad Chamas with Ryan Gallagher, or Yuxiao Wei with Brianna Loomis.  Shaquille Tucker could not be replaced with anyone else, nor could Shaun Wilson.  I chose these names at random from your class, but I could point to any of you and, once I got to know you a little better (and I hope I do), I could make a good case for your unique contribution to the Class of 2018.

But this leads me to a question I’m dying to ask you, Class of 2018, which is this:  Why ARE you here?  I'm serious - why are you here? 

I understand this question might seem contrary at the moment, given that I just told you how great it is to have you all here.  But, you see, the Duke experiences of Sophie, Ryan, Brianna, and Shaquille – and of all the rest of you – have yet to be realized.  And what that Duke experience will be, and where it will take you, depends on why you think you’re here.

I also understand that asking why you’re here is an odd question because there’s an obvious answer.  You’re here because we invited you, and you choose to accept our invitation.  I’m sure you had many invitations you could have accepted, but you chose to accept Duke’s invitation instead.  So asking why you’ve actually shown up might even seem rude.  Imagine if a friend asked you over for dinner one evening when you had all sorts of other things you could do, but you choose to accept your friend’s invitation, and then, when you show up at the door, your friend asks ''Why are you here?'' ''Because you invited me!'' you’d reply, with understandable exasperation.

But I'm looking for a deeper answer.  Coming to Duke isn’t just a dinner party, of course.  It’s an entrance into what should be a transformative interlude in your life.  So when I ask you why you’re here, I’m asking you a deeply existential question.  And I’m asking you a question that you may not even fully know the answer to yet.

To a migrating bird, the answer to the question ''Why are you here?'' is quite mechanistic, and indeed the answer is understood by scientists in detail.  As days lengthen, that change is sensed by an organ in the bird’s brain, which in turn starts a cascade of gene expression and hormonal fluctuations, triggering a physiological urgency to fly along a programmed compass direction until an internal map indicates to the bird that it’s arrived at just the right spot.  It’s a marvelous bit of biology, the way birds get to where they need to be, but it’s determined—the birds have no choice in the matter.

You, on the other hand, made a choice.  You made a choice to go to college and, more particularly, you chose to come to Duke.  Why did you make that choice?  That’s another way to ask the question "Why are you here?"

''OK,''you might say, ''I’m here to get an education.'' But what does that really mean to you? ''It means I’ll learn things,'' you might reply.  I agree, you will certainly learn things at Duke you don’t already know, but you don’t need to be here to do that.  ''Well, I’m here to get a Duke degree!'' you might say, growing a bit annoyed with me, ''I’m here to get a credential that’ll vouch for my accomplishments and enable my future success.''  This is also true – you will get a degree, and that degree being a Duke degree will stand you in good stead when you leave us.

Each of you might articulate a more specific form of this same answer.  ''I’m here to major in economics,'' could be your answer, or ''I’m here to study global health'' or ''I’m here to launch a career in sports'' or ''I’m here to prepare for law school'' or ''I’m here to become an artist.''  These are all valid answers, but they only scratch the surface of answering the question ''Why are you here?''

I’m pressing you on this question because the asking of it is inherent to what we do at Duke.  You see, in choosing to come to Duke, you chose a particular kind of education, something we call liberal education.  Each of you has your own talents, ideas, and potential that you could develop in very focused ways.  Indeed, in most of the world, a more narrow approach is taken to the education of promising young people such as you.  Early on, the best and brightest are identified, asked what they’re interested in, and then put into programs that hone their particular vocational interests to the exclusion of other subjects.

And this is an option available in this country as well.  Those of you who are artistically inclined could have chosen to go to a conservatory, those of you inclined towards the sciences or engineering could have gone to a technical institute, those of you interested in business could have jumped right into a finance or management program, and so on.  All of these options can lead one to a productive and rewarding career. And those of you who aren’t yet sure what you want to do could have simply waited to go to school until after you figured it out.

But all of you chose to come to Duke instead, where we do enable you to specialize, but only with the insistence that your specialization be woven into a broader tapestry of knowledge and experience.  You chose to come to Duke where not only do we insist that you study subjects beyond your current interests, but where we also place a thousand other diversions in your path outside the classroom, in the form of clubs, teams, performance groups, and so on.  We even ask you to live together with people with whom you may initially have nothing in common other than the fact that you happen to be Duke students, which is surely a distraction from the straight and narrow.

You chose to come to Duke where we do everything we can to erase the lines that separate formal learning from the real world – indeed, we start pushing you into the world almost from the moment you arrive.  One could argue – and this argument is made strongly by some – that it would be more efficient and more effective to simply identify your vocation, train you up to be good in that field, and send you on your way without all these diversions.

So why not just let you get on with whatever it is you happen to be interested in, instead of distracting you with all these other things that are part and parcel of a liberal education?

I’ll offer two reasons, both of which bring into focus the point of liberal education such as we practice it at Duke and both of which, I hope, will help you answer for yourself the question, ''Why you are here?''

My first reason has to do with the oft-stated and certainly accurate view that many of the jobs your generation will hold haven’t even been conceived of yet.  The futurist Jim Carroll suggests the imminent emergence of novel professions with colorful names such as "knowledge farmer," "location intelligence professional," and "mash manager." If we don’t even know what a ''mash manager'' is yet, how can we prepare you to excel in that job?  Moreover, how can we not only prepare you for professions that don’t yet exist, but help you be the ones who invent those jobs in the first place?

The answer is to train you not just with specific knowledge and skills, but to give you practice in maintaining a flexible, creative, and open mind, a mind that will continue to absorb new ideas and adapt to new ways of thinking throughout your life.  And to accomplish this, we do everything we can to broaden your perspective, not narrow it, from the structure of our curriculum to the ways we have you live together and to all the experiences you’ll have in between. 

The second reason I’ll offer for why we practice education the way we do at Duke has less to do with your future work and everything to do with your future life. Of course, we expect that your Duke education will send you off to a successful career and help you sustain that success as the world changes around you, and as you change the world.  But it’s our mission not just to help you launch a satisfying and rewarding living, but also to help you lead a satisfying and rewarding life.  It is an unfortunate fact of human existence that it’s possible to be professionally successful and personally unsatisfied at the same time.  When we encourage you – in this rich environment we call a Duke education – when we encourage you to develop your knowledge beyond what you think you’re interested in, to expand your talents and pursue your passions in ways that may not seem immediately useful, and to broaden your experience of what it means to be human, it’s to help you find your own answer to the question ''Why are you here?'' in the broadest sense of what that question is asking.

I can ask you this question, but only you can answer it.  On one level, you’re here because we invited you, but now that you’ve arrived, you have to take a deep dive on what that question really means to you.  And the way you do that is by asking yourself at every turn the many variants there are of this same question. 

Why am I taking this class?  Why am I joining this group?  Why am I spending time with this person?  Why am I NOT spending time with that person?  Why am I making the choices I’m making, large and small?  What drives me?

By asking ''Why you're here?'' I’m really inviting you to ask yourself what you want to get out of life, which will help you realize what you can get out of Duke.  And I can assure you that the more you ask yourself that question now, the more you’ll get out of your Duke experience that will help you continue to ask and answer that question for the rest of your life.

I began with the image of the Swallows of Capistrano and it’s with that image that I’ll close my remarks.  In days gone by, the monks of the Mission San Juan Capistrano no doubt saw the return of the swallows as divine evidence that good works in the past carry forth to rewards in the future.  Here at Duke, your arrival also reminds us of the importance of good works, but not those in the past.  For it’s the good works that you’ll do somewhere down the line that gives us cause for celebration today.  Welcome to Duke.