Reflections on the Class of 2020

The Class of 2020 has gone through an experience unlike any previous Duke University class, and they have been tested.  The Marking the Moment website will include numerous testimonials from faculty and staff on Sunday, but we’ve asked several of the teaching award winners for 2020 to say a few words here about their students.


Bruce Jentleson, William Preston Few Distinguished Professor, Sanford School of Public Policy and Professor, Political Science – Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award

“Initially I thought this graduation message would be very different than one I would have written three months ago. The uncertainties, the hardships, the tragic losses of life are felt in our Duke community, across the United States, throughout the world. 

“Different message in some respects, but fundamentally the same it would have been, indeed reinforced and accentuated by the COVID-19 crisis. 

Bruce Jentleson“At its best a Duke education does three things. First, it provides opportunities for individual growth – intellectually, skills-wise, personally --- preparing each of you for successful careers and for what the educational innovator Jean Piaget called being ‘capable of doing new things ... creative, inventive and discoverers.’ Second, it fosters a sense of being a part of something larger than any one of us, a world with both wonders and problems for which, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, ‘education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and...  save it from that ruin which, except for the coming of the new and thee young, would be inevitable.’ Third is the lifelong value of relationships you’ve made – no quote here, just the fact that last Friday night we did a Zoom cocktail party with one of my undergraduate roommates from 50 years ago. 

“All of these were true when you arrived as freshmen. The experiences of these past months have spoken further to them. So, while you won’t be here at Duke for hugs, high-fives and Wallace Wade processional, you and your families surely will find ways to celebrate, no doubt very meaningfully. For my part I’ll miss meeting your families and conveying to them how much I enjoyed working with you. All best wishes.”


Charles Nunn, Gosnell Family Professor in Global Health, Evolutionary Anthropology – David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Award

“Congratulations to the Duke Class of 2020!  It has been fantastic to get to know so many of you in the classroom, as an advisor, or through research in my lab.  I'm proud of the graduating seniors who completed honors theses in my research group this year!  Way to go Lisa, Jennifer, Danielle, and Miranda.  

Charles Nunn “I am also proud of the great field experiences many of you undertook in Madagascar via my Bass Connections teams while you were at Duke.  Now more than ever, we need leadership, teamwork, and innovative thinking to tackle the challenges our world faces.  I hope you will draw on your Duke experiences to address these challenges, including your experiences in team-based learning, hands-on research, and interdisciplinary communication.  I look forward to continuing to work with some of you - and learn from you! - as you make your own marks in the world.  

“Take care and keep in touch with the faculty who influenced you.  We love to hear from our former students.”


Jen'nan Read, Sally Dalton Robinson Professor, Sociology – Howard D. Johnson Award

“Defining moments are hard to predict in life. You’ve just had yours. I encourage you to embrace it because in 5, 10, 15 years, you will look back and realize that it distinguishes and defines you in ways that give you strength and the ability to persevere. 

Jen'nan Read“I speak from experience, having lived through the Reagan administration’s bombing of Libya that caused me to miss my 8th grade year of school. And while none of us can control situations such as these, we can control how we respond. It’s okay to be disappointed. But in the long-term, I truly believe that there is no one more prepared to tackle challenge and adversity with innovation, creativity, and optimism than Duke University graduates—than each of you. 

“I have had the profound pleasure of teaching many of you over the years, and you’ve never ceased to amaze me with your passion and enthusiasm for life, for learning, and for finding solutions to societal problems. Together, we will come through this stronger and more compassionate than before. Go Duke!”


Haleema Welji, Lecturing Fellow, Thompson Writing Program – Award for Excellence in Teaching Writing

“Congratulations, class of 2020! Here’s to all you have accomplished, and all you will do in the future!

“In the Thompson Writing Program, I have the pleasure of welcoming Duke students at the start of their academic journeys. I see students who are excited, curious, sharp, and motivated. Over the course of the semester, I get to watch you grow. You learn new theories, read difficult texts, dive into complex analysis, and write (a lot). But the most powerful growth that you demonstrate is not in learning content. Instead, you open your minds to new ways of interpreting the world, asking questions, and critiquing what is often taken for granted. You challenge why the status quo is what it is, and whether that is good enough. 

Haleema Welji“Of all the values you developed, perhaps the most important is your ability to face a world that is complex, where solutions aren’t simple, and where inequities mean that not everyone has equal opportunities to succeed. You see that in how COVID-19 has upended your senior year, drastically altered your entrance into the next phase of your life and career, and magnified inequalities across the globe. But you leave Duke with the power to think creatively about change. 

“Each day, you learned to navigate and cope with complexities not just in your classes, but in your interactions with diverse peers, planning activities on campus, and exploring Durham. Class of 2020, your ability to ask questions, think creatively, and push back against a “normal” that is unfair, is the power that you leave with, and that is the power that we need from you now. May you stay restless in your pursuit of a just, equitable world.”