Leah Rosen: The Power of a Place

Class speaker advises classmates to leaving behind focus on 'doing' and enjoy 'being'

Part of the Commencement Stories 2019 Series
Leah Rosen advised new graduates to focus on 'being' rather than 'doing.'
Leah Rosen advised new graduates to focus on 'being' rather than 'doing.' Photo by University Communications

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We’ve all been asked this question.

And as children, we responded with ambitious, often fantastical answers. I would always reply, “a princess of course!!!” while my twin brother would say something like, “duh, Lebron James.”

But with time and perhaps a better sense of reality our responses to this same question changed...becoming more realistic and less abstract.

And I imagine if I were to ask all of you today the same question, you’d probably respond with one of the standard Duke answers, telling me how you got your dream job at a top company doing finance or consulting.

Or, by explaining how what you’re doing next year isn’t your dream job, but "HEEEY....it pays the bills!"

Or you may even say that you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing next year, and despite what your parents might say, that’s perfectly alright too!

But did you notice that none of these responses actually answered the question I was asking?  Because “what do you want to be?” is not the same question as “what do you want to do?”

Being vs Doing. We often conflate these verbs and thus respond to the former question with answers better suited for the latter. “Doing” means action. “Being” takes that a little deeper to imply presence and intention in our actions.

And while this difference may seem small, in the real world who we choose to be is far more important than what we choose to do. In whichever careers we choose to pursue, we’ll face deadlines, pressure, exhaustion—Sound familiar, anyone?  And in this stressful environment, sometimes it can feel like the only way to get through is to do, do, do.

But so much is lost in that approach. When we just go through the motions, we lose sight of any greater purpose... of why this all matters. It’s when we pause and evaluate what is truly important to us, and what is truly important to the people around us that we gain a sense of purpose and fulfillment from the work that we do.

“It was only recently that I was even able to unlock the experiences of being. To be enough. To be in love. To be patient—with others and myself. To be joyful.”

But in no way do I want to make it seem like I have this all figured out—because that couldn’t be farther from the truth. For most of my life, it felt like all I knew was how to do. To do work, organizing my time around to-do lists, always feeling pressured to do more.

It was only recently that I was even able to unlock the experiences of being. To be enough. To be in love. To be patient—with others and myself. To be joyful.

And I don’t know if that’s just a product of growing up... or maybe finally listening to my mom’s advice, but what I do know is that a lot of this personal growth occurred while I was here and I also know that I still have a long way to go.

But as much as today is about imagining our future direction—what we’ll do and who we’ll be—it’s also about reflecting on how far we’ve come.

So in an effort to express to all of you what these past couple of years have meant to me, I am going to share a poem I wrote, titled “The Power of a Place.”

The Power of a Place

When I was seventeen years old,
I swore I didn’t have a dream school.
Some people believed me,

Others thought I was just playing it cool,
So to not get too high of expectations
For standing out in a sea of over-qualified applications.

But I couldn’t convince myself too, That I wasn’t in love with Duke. And what to this day,
Continues to blow me away,

Is that I fell in love with Duke Before meeting any of you.

But now when I think of what I’ll miss,
Aside from the Chapel and 3rd floor Perkins bridge, It is all of you at the top of my list.
The professors who have turned into friends,
And the friends who have turned into family

You are the ones who have made Duke so special to me, & through these lasting relationships,
I hope it’ll feel like we never had to leave.

But today is the day,
And although we’d like to stay,
I can confidently state that in the classic Duke way, We are over-prepared for whatever comes after today.

For the past couple of years,
You have learned and lived with peers Who, like you, will continue to stand out. Stand out for how they think,
But also how they choose time spent,
As we are the only students I know
Who would willingly sleep in a tent,

While studying textbooks to their ends
For one night in Cameron with our closest 9,000 friends.

This to me is the Duke difference:
To find balance in one’s life & priorities,
While still tending to academic duties
And it is what you’ve all taught me:
That to be happy,
I have to let myself be a little more free
To pursue knowledge adamantly,
Seek experiences of diversity, and treat others compassionately.

This is why I continue to love Duke,
And it is the reason I cherish all of you.
You understand “being” and “doing” as separate entities, & crafted that into your identities.

You can feel it in the air,
The way we care
About our work... but also who it affects, Rather than just which boxes it checks.

And that’s what matters,
For us now and the years after
That what we do aligns with who want to be and the future that we want to see.
& for that, now just between you and me,
I think we’re at one of the best places to be.

The place that taught me success cannot come without trying, And graduation cannot come without crying.
The place that taught me life is too special to be spent stressed, How to get through yet another chemistry test,

And most importantly, that our blue is best.

So if I could travel back through time and space,
I’d tell my seventeen-year-old self the power of this place.