Richard Powell: Words for New Graduate and Professional Students

Richard J. Powell Graduate and Professional School students, on behalf of the entire Duke University community I welcome you, and I extend my warmest regards to you on this auspicious occasion. It is an honor for me to offer you this official greeting, especially in this special place, and at this special time in your lives.

As an art historian, I would be remiss if I did not point out to you that where we are now – Duke University Chapel – is not only a special and sacred space, but architecturally and culturally significant.Duke University Chapel is one of the world's finest examples of Gothic revival architecture, an ecclesiastical style whose imposing structures and lofty interiors encourage visitors to psychologically ascend and spiritually marvel at the wonders of faith and creation.

“Clearly Duke University has come a long, long way from its less enlightened beginnings in matters of race and, yet, Julian Abele's contributions to Duke's genesis speak to the glimmers of progressive thinking even in those earlier years.”

A major part of my astonishment around the phenomenon of creation in the Duke University Chapel, both divine and human, surely springs from the story of the Chapel's architect, Julian Francis Abele who, despite his African American heritage, was enlisted in the late 1920s to design a signature building on a racially segregated University campus in the American South at a cost of 2.3 million dollars. It is worth noting that Julian Abele, the first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's architecture department, was preeminently qualified to design this chapel, having already played a key role in designing such American landmarks as Harvard University's Widener Memorial Library, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. One cannot sit in this chapel or, for that matter, walk across this campus without marveling at the idea that the founders of this university were able to set aside that era's racial prejudices and social boundaries to hire an accomplished black architect – thoroughly trained in the beaux-arts traditions of European architecture and design – to realize their dream for a distinctive corpus of first-tier educational facilities, with this beautiful, soaring, and spiritually uplifting architectural statement at its center. Clearly Duke University has come a long, long way from its less enlightened beginnings in matters of race and, yet, Julian Abele's contributions to Duke's genesis speak to the glimmers of progressive thinking even in those earlier years.

It would also be careless of me to not mention that, among the many cultural luminaries who have stood in the transept of the Duke University Chapel, one in particular, the acclaimed poet, dramatist, and memoirist Maya Angelou, has a special place in this Chapel's history, as well as for our purposes now in this Convocation ceremony. From 1994 until 2013, Maya Angelou served as Duke University's freshman convocation speaker, welcoming the newly minted "Dukies" with poems, songs, reminiscences about her artistic career and political activism, and her compelling words of wisdom. Throughout Angelou's consecutive 20-year appearance here in Duke Chapel, I would occasionally attend the convocations and, like my amazement at the Julian Abele story, I was moved by her unfailing ability, time and time again, to use that occasion to warmly welcome the entering freshman classes and convey a powerful and optimistic message. A confession: I made Maya Angelou's acquaintance about a decade after she published her literary classic I Now Why the Caged Bird Singsand, yet, decades after that initial meeting and our numerous conversations over the years, I remained in awe of this remarkable woman who, despite all of the odds in life that one could imagine holding her back, created an extraordinary existence for herself and a life dedicated to art, learning, and service.

Thank you for indulging me to offer my supplications to those Duke University Chapel spirits. I would now like to offer some thoughts about what higher learning means to me, and what your forthcoming graduate and professional school life might encompass. Let me state at the outset that becoming a university professor and settling into what could be described as "the scholar's life" was not a hurdle-free path, nor was it a carefully calculated, well thought out route. Despite many assumptions to the contrary, career fulfillment for most academicians is hard earned and, at various steps along the way, easily disrupted for a variety of reasons. This means that you must possess fortitude and a considerable amount of will to make it through graduate and professional school. Success in the academy also requires a good portion of luck. And while some of you might think that, alas, good fortune is something that "just happens" and isn't guaranteed, I am a firm believer that providence isn't entirely serendipitous but, rather, something that can be dreamt, cultivated, made a part of your world, and in essence, brought into existence by you.

“The ability to picture in your mind not necessarily your entire life in fine detail, but the next small step you might take, or your eventual appearance in front of your professors and fellow classmates, or the anticipated tenor of your voice at a moment of truth, is indispensable for successfully navigating the actual, future event itself.”

When I talk about imagining and fostering a conducive environment for luck and academic well-being, I'm not talking mumbo-jumbo; I'm talking about visualization and preparation, which are the corresponding ingredients for achieving any goal in life, including finding a rewarding place in the academy. I don't have to tell you that visualization, an idea now fundamental to science, engineering, technology, and education, is derived from the arts, the humanities, and other modes of imaging and creative work in our culture. The ability to picture in your mind not necessarily your entire life in fine detail, but the next small step you might take, or your eventual appearance in front of your professors and fellow classmates, or the anticipated tenor of your voice at a moment of truth, is indispensable for successfully navigating the actual, future event itself. The art of visualization requires the ability to imagine not just ideal prospects, but an unanticipated and challenging future, an outlook necessitating skills of improvisation and fast-thinking to come through any potential adversities. I don't have enough time this afternoon to sing the praises of perfecting your skills of improvisation in graduate and professional school, but being able to contend with the unexpected (in terms of disappointments and, often correspondingly, totally unforeseen, out-of-the-blue opportunities) can make the difference between scholastic malfunction and pedagogic triumph. "We build our temples for tomorrow," wrote the poet Langston Hughes, "strong as we know how" he added, unwittingly channeling Duke University Chapel architect Julian Abele and we, the scholars and builders of futures to come.

An imagined future in higher education, as stated earlier, also requires preparation. But preparation, as you will soon learn in the Schools of the Environment, Divinity, Nursing, Medicine, Law, Business, Engineering, Public Policy, and in the Graduate School, means different things at different stages and endeavors of scholarly work. The types and degrees of preparation for graduate coursework are not the same as those for laboratory research and, similarly, the kinds of preliminary groundwork for legal studies is nothing like the organizational planning and systems research required for business and engineering. The shared attributes, I would conjecture, are the expectations from the graduate and professional school faculty that you will do your very best, and will leverage the luxury of focusing for a period of time on your chosen area of expertise. As someone who during my own years as a graduate student had the back-handed title within my family of "the perennial student," I totally understand both the joys of immersing oneself in their selected field of interest and the flak one can receive from folks who just don't "get" the idea of devoting a small portion of your life to professional development and training. The key is to acknowledge how incredibly blessed you are to have this opportunity, and to not apologize for your decision to temporarily pursue a life of the mind.

“Although your graduate and professional school training will ideally prepare you to be an authority or a specialist in a particular field, a single area of knowledge in the future will not be enough.”

As witnesses to the economic changes that have altered the American workforce in the 21st-century, you certainly don't need me to tell you that, although your graduate and professional school training will ideally prepare you to be an authority or a specialist in a particular field, a single area of knowledge in the future will not be enough. All of the forecasts for the prospective trade and industry pictures indicate that businesses and companies will be increasingly looking for employees with not only individual mastery, but people with a diverse collection of skill sets. Which suggests that, as graduate and professional school students, you can no longer just tunnel into a fairly narrow academic or professional area of proficiency; rather, while in school you should take advantage of the various related and perhaps not so related fields of study at Duke University available to you, to expand your competencies, to augment an already stellar resume, and, perhaps even more important, to develop your own individual interests and personal edifications. How about a foreign language class, or a philosophy or history course, or a classics or acting class, or a public policy seminar or, yes, even an art history class? These are social science- or humanities-centered courses that would enrich a more technological or professional portfolio by demonstrating one's ability to create, to think outside of the box, and to critically and empathetically engage with many of the pressing, human problems of the day.

In contrast to the senior theses and the qualifying exams of your undergraduate experience, as graduate and professional school students you are expected to demonstrate at the end of your tenure here at Duke University a high level of scholarly achievement. For many of you this will take the form of a dissertation; for others, this will be a substantive, capstone project, or some other accumulative, part written, part practicum endeavor. Because of the enormous amount of time and exceptional effort it will take to complete this major project and bring it to near perfection, I sincerely hope it will go beyond the obligatory and routine and, instead, deeply and enthusiastically inveigle you. Please choose a dissertation topic or develop a capstone project that, after years of conducting research and bringing it to fruition, won't make you so weary and so tired of it that it becomes an ordeal. Fostering excitement and passion around your work will sustain you in the long run, and will bolster and help propel you to the final project's successful completion.

Please make communities while you're here at Duke. Emphasis on the plural. Not just establishing friendships in your respective departments and living situations, but forging acquaintances and bonds beyond your immediate, everyday interactions. Taking classes and meeting students and faculty outside of your home department not only widens your intellectual and social orbit: it helps you form professional alliances and networks that might be needed later on. You cannot do graduate and professional school alone; you need a collection of folks with whom you can discuss coursework and study; with whom you can laugh and commiserate, and will both humor you and, unflinchingly (and with love), bring you back to reality. Someone who will say, "Oh, so how is that dissertation prospective coming along, my dear," or "haven't you missed one too many seminars, bro?"

And also work at staying healthy and fit. Attending classes and keeping up with all of the required readings and assignments at a desk and hunched over a computer screen does not do your body any favors. There is no excuse for not utilizing Duke's many excellent athletic facilities, swimming pools, walking trails, and intramural sports activities. You can also break up the monotony of academic labor by attending a concert, visiting an art exhibition, or walking in the Sarah B. Duke Gardens. Your brain will respond in kind with greater alertness and fresh scholarly insights. It's true. I conceived most of this convocation speech on the elliptical machine.

Finally, in the midst of your graduate and professional school studies, and along with your efforts to balance a packed schedule of writing and research, please don't forget to frequently communicate with your family and friends back home. In her freshman convocations, Maya Angelou would always say to the first-year students, "Don't squander this opportunity and, please, don't worry yourself sick; you've already been paid for."What she meant by those last words about the students already having been purchased was in reference to the sacrifices and outlays – educational and financial – that families and close friends had made for them, so that they – and I would add all of us, as university scholars/constituents – have the inestimable luxury of fully committing ourselves to the life of the mind. Again, we have our families and friends to thank for this lifetime expenditure on our behalf. And, like the learned pioneers who forged the path that you now walk down, please use these next few years at Duke University to map your own intellectual course, but with the proviso of doing it admirably, passionately, and with the ultimate goal of contributing something of value to society.