Advice for New Students: 'Be Grateful, Be Present, And Laugh'

An empty Duke Chapel played host to this year’s undergraduate convocation ceremony, featuring words of welcome and wisdom from speakers who were each pre-filmed individually, at a distance, for the ceremony which was delivered via YouTube. 

“Each year I have the privilege of presenting the entering class to the university community.” Christoph Guttentag, dean of Undergraduate Admissions told the audience gathered remotely. The process of selecting the first-year class, Guttentag confessed, is always challenging and stressful but this year “started out more or less normally and ended like nothing we have ever seen before.”   

Like the many classes before, this year’s entering class comes from all over the world. “A third of you are the only ones from your hometowns to be here and over half of you are students of color.” (Read more of his speech in Duke Today.)

The class of 2024
from 58 countries
from 47 states
from 822 cities and towns
1/3 are the only ones from their hometowns at Duke
over 1/2
are students of color


Guttentag noted what stood out most to the admissions staff was “how much things mattered to you. The secret to your admission wasn’t in your grades, or test scores, or your list of activities…You made a difference in your school or in your community or maybe right in your family.”

Duke Student Government President Tommy Hessel, a computer science major, shared with the incoming class some of his own journey at Duke. “Self-discovery requires active exploration…personally I owe my course of studies to this exploration after deciding, on a whim, to attend Duke Energy Week as a first-year.”


An unprecedented response to an unprecedented time

“I suspect you are getting a little tired of that word: unprecedented,” President Vincent Price remarked as he welcomed the Class of 2024. “Today is a moment with a great many precedents,” Price pointed out, noting that Duke’s ceremonies have evolved since 1906, when the Trinity College President welcomed new students while hoisting a flag in academic regalia to the cheers of students. (His full text can be found in Duke Today.)

“This isn’t even our first opening celebration during a pandemic,” he noted, referring to Trinity’s experience during the flu pandemic of 1918. “It must have been an unsettling time, just as I know this is. The excitement of a new start twinged with uncertainty about the world around us.”

Price reflected on a highlight of many previous Duke convocation ceremonies. “If you asked anyone who attended our opening ceremonies between 1990 and 2014 I suspect that they will tell you what they remember is hearing from the late poet Maya Angelou.” Price echoed the advice Maya Angelou once gave “to be grateful, to be present, and to laugh.”

Channeling Angelou, Price encouraged the community to “awaken each day to this new academic year with gratitude.” Gratitude for food, shelter, and safety, gratitude for the opportunity to join this community, and gratitude for our health.

In this challenging time part of that gratitude, Price added, involves doing what is necessary to create a safe, healthy, and inclusive community at Duke. He encouraged students to follow Angelou’s advice and be present – in whatever way they can – in the relationships and opportunities the Duke experience brings.

“All of us must also be present to our obligations to do the – frankly – unnatural things we must all do in this pandemic to keep ourselves and our Durham community healthy.” Echoing the mantra the community has adopted “Duke United,” Price reminded students we must be vigilant “we can’t let our guard down or give in to those understandable temptations to get back to our normal lives.” What about those hallowed Duke traditions? “Eventually, but not now.” We will have to develop new traditions, Price continued, encouraging students wear their Duke face masks everywhere they go as “badges of Duke pride.”

Of course, all of this would be hard to maintain without Angelou’s final piece of advice: laughter. “Laughter is a critical part of our humanity. I encourage, especially in these complicated times, to look for the daily moments of humor and joy that will offer themselves to you in your time. Moments of joy are everywhere at Duke and I hope you will take the time to find them.” 

Other university leaders offered words that mixed comfort with encouragement. Provost Sally Kornbluth urged students to “increase our wisdom and promote human happiness.”  Vice Provost Gary Bennett told them “you will have a greater opportunity than ever before to bring about meaningful change, whether through your learning, service, or engagement with your neighbors.”

In addition, Trinity College Dean Valerie Ashby and Pratt School Dean Ravi Bellamkonda officially welcomed the undergraduate students into their schools.

Students were offered an interfaith welcome and invocation from Rabbi Elana Friedman, campus rabbi and Jewish Chaplain for Jewish Life; Dean of Duke Chapel Rev. Luke Powery and Muslim Chaplain Joshua Salaam, director of The Duke Center for Muslim Life.

Rev. Powery closed the invocation reminding the Duke Community to “discover our common humanity and by doing so truly embody the institutional value of excellence. That is the most excellent way of love, justice, and peace.”