Dean Nowicki to the Class of 2021: You Belong Here

Dean Steve Nowicki told students of his own struggle to prove that he belonged at Duke. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography
Dean Steve Nowicki told students of his own struggle to prove that he belonged at Duke. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography

Class of 2021, welcome to Duke!  Welcome to our Duke community!

I have a letter framed on the wall of my laboratory in the BioSci building—if you stop by my lab, you’ll see it there, prominently displayed.

Now, when you frame a letter like this, it’s sometimes because the letter is an important historical document.  For example, there’s a framed letter in President Price’s office.  This is a letter that Duke University’s first president, William Preston Few, drafted for James B. Duke in 1924, in which Mr. Duke commits to providing the endowment that led to the creation of Duke University.  That letter is a great piece of Duke history, and it’s certainly worth hanging on the wall.  The letter on the wall of my lab has no historical significance, however, only personal significance. 

When someone hangs a more personal letter on the wall, it’s often something like a letter telling you that you’ve won a prestigious award or some honor.  Maybe some of you have framed the letter you received telling you that you’d been admitted to Duke!

But the letter I have on my wall isn’t quite that either.  It is a letter I received from Duke some years ago, but instead of being an acceptance of any sort, it’s a rejection letter—a letter telling me I was not going to be given a job as a faculty member here. 

Actually, it’s worse than that…  The letter thanks me for applying to the job and continues on to say that my application ranked in the “top third” of all applications they received.  But then it goes on to tell me that over 260 people had applied for the same job!  For a faculty job like this, usually only a dozen or so candidates might be considered seriously, and only three—or at most four or five—might get an interview.  You do the math…  I realized that by telling me I was in the “top third” of 260 plus, the letter was really saying—as politely as possible—that at least I wasn’t the worst loser in the pack! 

So why do I have this letter framed on my wall? The answer is simple, and it’s why I’m at Duke today.  You see, I was pretty bummed out to get this letter because I thought Duke would be a great place for me to be, to teach and to do research.  Everything I knew about Duke led me to believe that it was a place where I would fit well as a scholar, and a place that that would fit me well, a place where I would belong.

So, sure, I was really disappointed to get this letter.  But after I got over being bummed out, I thought to myself, “Hey!  I do belong at Duke – they just don’t know it yet!”

That’s why, when another job in my area came open at Duke a few years later, I applied again.  Even more than the first time, I felt like I belonged here.  And this time, Duke agreed. 

Some months ago, we told you that you belong here at Duke, too.  You checked online and saw that you were admitted, which is our way of saying “Yes, you belong here.”  And you agreed with us—you thought that you belong here, too.  Now finally, you’re all here as Duke’s Class of 2021.  This Convocation is when you officially become a Duke student.  And it’s also our chance to say again, in person now, that you belong here, each and every one of you.

“You belong here.”  These are easy words to say, but truth be told, these aren’t words we can or should take for granted.   To truly belong someplace is much deeper than just being there.  I’m sure all of you have had the experience of being invited to some social gathering, or being asked to join a club or participate in some event, and when you showed up you thought “I don’t fit in here.  Who are these people?  I don’t belong here.”  Just being invited, just showing up, just being someplace, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll belong there, in the fullest sense of that word.  But it is the fullest sense of that word—to belong—that we want you to experience at Duke.

Some of you may already have had a moment of doubt, a moment in which you questioned whether you really belong at Duke.  You might have thought to yourself “Everyone already knows how this place works except me—I’m not even sure how to take the East-West bus yet.”  Or maybe you thought “Everybody here seems so smart, so accomplished—maybe they made a mistake letting me in.”  Or worse, you might have thought “I don’t see many people here who are like me, people who come from the same kind of place I do.  Where are the people who share my values?  Where are the folks I can talk to, people who can understand who I really am?”  Or, maybe you ran into somebody who just seemed plain unwelcoming, someone who gave you the impression that they thought you don’t belong here.

Any of that would be truly unfortunate.  We do everything we can to help you belong here, but it could happen that at some point you may feel like you don’t belong.  Maybe you’ll have that feeling next week, or next month, or next year—a feeling of doubt that you belong at Duke, or that Duke really wants you as part of its community, that Duke belongs to you.

I’m hoping that this will never be the case for any of you, but I’m admitting that it’s a possibility.  I’m admitting it’s a possibility because it’s something we need to work hard—together—to avoid.  This is important, because if even one of you feels like you don’t belong as part of our community, or that Duke doesn’t belong to you, it’ll be our loss.  Let me tell you why.

Your Duke education will be far more than just the 30-some classes you’ll take over the next four years.  At Duke, you’ll discover an extraordinary richness and diversity of people, perspectives, and ideas—in and out of the classroom—the likes of which you’ll rarely encounter elsewhere, with the opportunity to learn something from every one of these people, and to benefit from encountering such a wide range of ideas and interests.  Look around you!  I am as sure as the day is long that you could learn something from each and every person in this chapel, and I know it’s equally true that every one of you has something you could teach to someone else here as well. 

And it’s not just the people in this room.  Think of the other 5,000 or so students who’ll be returning in a few days, not to mention the faculty you’ll work with, as well as the staff—the thousands of people who make this place tick—the people who run our offices, who take care of our buildings and our beautiful campus, who prepare and serve our food.  You can learn something from any one of these people, and they can learn from you.  That’s what a great university is about.  It’s the richness and diversity of ideas, perspectives, and human experience that make a Duke education so excellent.

But here’s the thing:  We only learn best from each other and teach each other well if we all feel like we belong.  We can only achieve the excellence that lies in the potential of the different people and perspectives, the different aspirations and ideas we’ve brought together at Duke, if everyone feels equally that Duke belongs to them.

Some of the people you’ll meet here will be quite different from you, and you may find some of the ideas you encounter to be challenging.  A sense of belonging makes the exchange of challenging ideas flow more easily.  It’s the comfort of knowing you truly belong, regardless of differences, that helps us all teach and learn from each other.  This is why I want you to feel—deep in your bones—that you belong here at Duke, and that Duke belongs to you.

There’s another important thing to understand about what it means to belong, which is that “belonging” does not mean “conforming.”  Let me repeat that because it’s important:  Belonging is not conforming.  We invited you to join Duke because of who you are, not who we thought you should be.  Of course, we hope that you grow during your time at Duke, that you expand your horizons, broaden your experience, and deepen your thinking.  And when you leave Duke, you’ll likely be a different person than you are today.  But the point is to become more of who you really are, not more like anyone else.  The excellence of this place emerges from the very different kinds of people who join our community.  To diminish those differences through conformity would only diminish our excellence.  You belong at Duke for who you are, on your own terms. 

The other side of that coin is important to keep in mind, too, however.  I want you to feel like you belong at Duke on your own terms, but I also ask you to allow your fellow students—and everyone else in our Duke community—to be who they are on their own terms.  This is difficult sometimes.  You may meet people who are very hard for you to understand, and you may encounter ideas that are hard for you to fathom, ideas you don’t agree with.

But if you don’t understand how somebody is the way they are, or why they think the way they do, don’t dismiss them—engage them, and do so with respect and civility.

This is not always easy, and it seems harder than ever these days as some people have become so polarized in their thinking and so unwelcoming in their actions.  Frankly, sometimes it may seem too hard.  But I ask you, as our newest Dukies, to do everything you can to help others in our community to feel like they belong here, too.  If everyone at Duke feels like they belong, then each one of us will be less likely to doubt that we belong, too.

The poet Maya Angelou was a great friend to Duke and before her passing she would come every year to speak here in Duke Chapel.  Dr. Angelou gave us many words of wisdom, but one theme to which she frequently returned seems particularly apt today.  “I am a human being,” Dr. Angelou would say, “so nothing human can be alien to me.”  I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me.

Actually, in saying this, Dr. Angelou was translating another great poet:  Terence, who lived in Rome in the second century AD.  Almost two thousand years later and across light years of cultural difference, Dr. Angelou reminded us that this fundamental idea remains unchanged:  If any human is capable of thinking something or doing something, then because we are all human, we have the capability to think that way or do that thing, too.  This is the deepest level of what it means to “belong.”

There is a caution in this statement, to understand that we all are capable of whatever bad things a human may think or do.  But far more importantly, there is enormous optimism in this idea, an optimism that can frame your time at Duke, and beyond.   

Over the next four years you’ll encounter great ideas and great accomplishments—in the arts, in the humanities, in science and engineering and the social sciences—and you’ll meet remarkable people who are responsible for these ideas and accomplishments.  These ideas are human ideas and these accomplishments are human accomplishments.  There is nothing human that can be alien to you.  So as you encounter these great ideas and as you meet these wonderful people, know that you, too, can achieve the same.  This idea is much bigger than Duke, of course, but now that you belong at Duke, there is nothing here that you can’t be part of, there’s nothing that you can’t achieve as well.

The letter I have framed on the wall of my lab—the rejection I received from Duke many years ago—ends in a funny way, by asking if I want my application materials returned.  Apparently, not only did Duke reject me back then, they didn’t want even a trace of my having applied left lying around!  I kept that letter as an ironic gesture of determination, but it also reminded me back then that you can’t take belonging for granted.

Nowadays that letter is no longer about me, it’s about you.  When I re-read that letter now, I’m reminded not only of how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to belong here at Duke, but also—and far more importantly—I’m reminded of how fortunate we are that you now belong at Duke, too.

You see, the Duke I know today is so much better than the Duke I wanted to be part of back then.  And you are the reason Duke is getting better and better.  Each time someone new joins Duke with their individual talents, ideas, passions, and vision, Duke gets that much better.  Now that you belong at Duke, each of you is making us all that much more excellent.

Belong here!  And make us better by being who you are.  Welcome to Duke!