We are here together on this beautiful morning to celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of the undergraduate Class of 2021.
You know, I have a special bond with your class, as we—you as new first-year students and I as a new first-year president—arrived at Duke together, four years ago. So allow me to be the first to say—Congratulations!
And to your families and friends, our honorary degree recipients, and special guests, welcome to Duke’s 168th annual—well, almost annual—Commencement exercises.
To our graduates—and I suspect for your family and friends—you will remember this morning, the morning of your 1348th day as Duke students, for the rest of your lives. And it’s already been a busy one.
Google tells me that today at approximately 6:21 and 28 seconds, the sun rose somewhere over East Union, just as it did that day that you arrived on East Campus for move-in four years ago. It followed the winding path of Campus Drive, making the same trip you did countless times on the C1 or C2.
A few moments later, light greeted birds flitting from branch to branch in the Gardens, shone through the huge wall of windows in the Brodhead Center, cast gem-like beams through the stained glass in the Chapel, and illuminated this stadium, where we are gathered now for this glorious morning, this new beginning, this joyful commencement.
It’s no coincidence that we host Duke’s commencements in the morning. For one thing, it’s usually the coolest part of the day—and the first Sunday of May in North Carolina can sometimes be a scorcher. And as your fellow graduates and faculty can tell you, these robes don’t exactly breathe.
But there are also deeper, more profound reasons for a morning meeting.
Commencement, as the name suggests, is not an end but a beginning. Today we celebrate, not your graduation from Duke, but the beginning of your careers as Duke alumni. To put it another way, today is not the twilight of your life at Duke. It is the morning of the extraordinary lives you have ahead.
In that spirit of beginning, we gather to celebrate this day—one made all the more joyful as we mark the slow return to normal life amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For a number of you, this commencement is the long-awaited start of a career you’ve been working toward since you arrived at Duke, and you set off from this moment with renewed purpose and promise. Others are headed to graduate school; some will go off to serve your country, or your community; some to a well-deserved rest to take in the lay of the land before setting off on new adventures. Each of you will celebrate many commencements to come, in one form or another, and will likely find that the twisting path of life leads to unexpected new beginnings, that each new dawn can break over wonderful and wild new landscapes.
Of course, life won’t always be a celebration of these new beginnings. As much as your families, friends, faculty members, and I wish it weren’t the case—and no matter how well Duke has prepared you for what comes next—you will undoubtedly encounter some darker days and nights. This class has perhaps already experienced more than its share—particularly in the uncertainty and distress of the pandemic.
But as the great bard of the Belle Epoque (Baile Poke), Victor Hugo put it, “even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise.”
Or for the music majors among you, in the words of the equally great bards of seventies jazz-rock fusion, Steely Dan, “As any major dude will tell you, when the demon is at your door, in the morning it won’t be there no more.”
So the Class of 2021 rises this morning to a new day, just as you have risen with purpose and passion to seek the opportunities of life at Duke. You’ve made lasting contributions and left your mark on every corner of our campus—from East Campus to the Gardens to the Brodhead Center to the Chapel.
And now you mark this glorious morning, where we greet you for the first time as Duke alumni. We are proud to be with you here at the beginning, and we can’t wait to see where you go from here.
Congratulations, Class of 2021.