President Price: Advice to 'Seek and Embrace Bewilderment'

President delivers address at his first new student convocation

New Duke President Vincent E. Price presents his first address at a Duke student convocation. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography
New Duke President Vincent E. Price presents his first address at a Duke student convocation. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography

As President, it is my great pleasure to welcome you and your families to the Duke community.

All summer long, the faculty and staff of the university have been hard at work preparing for your arrival. Syllabi have been revised, books have been ordered, desks have been polished, and sod has been laid.  And who knows?  Perhaps for one of you, half of your belongings were accidentally shipped to Cincinnati.

At any rate, now, after all of the preparations, the day has finally arrived for you and your classmates to say goodbye to your parents and settle into your rooms. I will keep these remarks brief, because I know how excited you must be to explore campus and get to know your new classmates, teammates, and friends, to get on with your new lives as part of this extraordinary community.

I share your anticipation, because this will be my first year at Duke as well. My wife Annette and our dogs Scout and Cricket made the move to campus just a few weeks ago, and we too are still finding our way around. As your fellow first-year Dukie, I’m proud to start my career here alongside you.  In the long history of Duke University, the Class of 2021 is truly remarkable.

A record number of students – 34,480 to be exact – applied for a seat in this magnificent chapel, and fewer than one in ten were admitted. Among you are the first youth ambassador to the USDA Task Force on Hunger, a volunteer firefighter, national champions in archery and kayaking, and a European champion chess master.

You have all worked hard to be here, sitting among the brightest and most promising students in the world.  Each of you brings something new, something wonderful, to this campus, and together, like the many different pieces of glass in these stained-glass windows, you will make the class of ’21 the beautiful mosaic it will become.

Now, I have some news for you: despite all the preparation, despite your accomplishments, the next four years are going to be hard. At times, really, really hard.

Your professors are going to ask you questions that you’ve never considered, much less know the answers to – questions that will challenge you to recognize and alter your preconceptions. You may experience the frustrations of working through some cleanliness issues with your roommates, or navigating some other rocky personal issues as you encounter people who are just different from you.  And you will need to figure out how to navigate the C1 and C2 busses between East and West campus. By the way, if you find yourself on a bus labeled Schedule 1082, that’s the Greyhound to Washington, DC, not a shuttle to the Washington Duke Inn.

You will face new and profound demands on your time. Someday soon, you’ll have two papers due, a midterm in your hardest class, a club event, and a friend’s birthday on the same day.

And you will find that – as recent events and issues surrounding this very chapel have illustrated – you are not isolated from the cares, needs, demands, and controversies of our nation and world. Indeed, you will be called upon to engage in thoughtful and sometimes very difficult conversations about our history, our present, and most important, the course of our futures together.

It can and will feel overwhelming, and you’re bound to lose your footing sometimes. When this happens, do not panic. Remember that every single one of your classmates is going to feel this way at some point. The same goes for your professors, your parents, and certainly for me.  We all lose our footing from time to time. 

The fact is, we’ve all experienced what the poet and essayist Wendell Berry called, “the bewilderments of … the human condition.”

So it is with years of experience that I’m going to let you in on a secret: the freedom to feel bewildered is the real gift that Duke offers you. Every member of this community – the faculty, staff, and your fellow students – is dedicated to giving you the opportunity to explore challenging ideas, to try things on without fear of judgment. I hope you will take full advantage of everything this university has to offer you.  I hope you seek and embrace bewilderment. 

I want to forewarn you that you can squander this opportunity.  You can squander it by staying within your comfort zone, relying too much on what you know, on the tried and true.  Do that, and you risk leaving the greater truth untried.

You can squander it by loading up on too many activities or burdening yourself with too many commitments. Don’t let life after college loom over every decision – you’ve got years for all of that to fall into place. Instead, remember that your time here isn’t so much about preparing for a career as it is about deepening your sense of self and your appreciation of other perspectives.

I don’t want you to skip class, but don’t spend all day in the library, either. Take the time to walk through Duke Gardens, or check out the Nasher Museum. Throw a frisbee on the quad and yes, get into a heated political discussion with your hallmate.

And perhaps most importantly, get some sleep. You know I’m serious about that last one.  Skipping sleep will make your grades, your friendships, and your health suffer.  Okay, I know I sound like your parents, but trust me on this one.

Speaking of your parents, they must be feeling a little bewildered right now, too. This is the last time you’ll all be together before family weekend in October. That may seem like it’s a long way off, but I know from experience that the next eight weeks are going to pass by much more slowly for your parents than they will for you.

Now, a word to the proud mothers and fathers and family members watching us on livestream: when you get a call – and you will – from your bewildered student, resist the natural, parental instinct to intervene.  Instead, please trust in the resources and institutional support that Duke offers. Instead, give your son or daughter the opportunity to figure things out on his or her own.

We all have to remember that there’s another side to bewilderment – Only through feeling bewildered will we learn something new or build new confidence in our convictions. It’s the catalyst for the development of self-awareness, of knowledge, of character.

So as you embark on your careers at Duke -- as you go with me now on this journey, I wish you the very best in the bewildering, joyful days ahead. Again, Welcome to Duke!