Distinctly Duke

One of the main reasons that I chose to come to Duke for college was for the weather.  Hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, I’m used to erratic weather.  Hence, when my sister sent me a video of snow in Cleveland this weekend (May 14-15), I was reminded again why I live in Durham, the city that (usually) provides perfect weather for graduation.  All weekend long, we had warm, but not too hot weather, sun, and clear skies.  My graduating roommates have funny-looking tan lines from their excursions to the gardens and forgetting to put on sunscreen with their mortarboards.

With the undergraduate and Kenan’s Ethic Certificate Program graduation ceremonies, there was much “free food” to collect.  The Tupperware that I now bring to most events out of habit from my Free Food Challenge in the fall semester filled up quickly.  Much to my roommates’ chagrin, our refrigerator is way too crowded with leftovers.  However, another more important result of attending the assortment of ceremonies was being able to snap pictures and listen to all the speeches and remarks.  It seemed as though all the speakers wanted to squeeze in last minute tidbits of wisdom before the graduates slipped away.  As I listened to these final messages, I noticed that all of the speeches had a similar underlying theme: pride.

Pride that graduates had made it to this day; pride that students had picked the best department; pride that they were graduating from “the greatest institution in the world.”

It seems important to visibly denote the end of a life chapter and the start of a new one. Otherwise, we may not recognize that we have moved forward.  The physical reminder of a degree, the diploma, or the cap and gown we wear at graduation allow us to take stock of what we have accomplished. It’s both hard to get into Duke and hard to stay—the coursework is demanding; you have to work hard.  Degrees and awards represent the hard work and challenges overcome.  The graduation ceremony is the pat on the back on a job well done.  It also allows family and friends to celebrate with us a milestone to which they were an integral part of getting us.   All the frills and formalities are just as much for the parents as for the graduates.

Graduations also come with mentors for the future — models of who we might emulate with our new degrees.  These are the speakers who are highly acclaimed for what they have accomplished.  They try to inspire us to action, yet due to the blur of the graduation day — running from convocation, to major/minor/certificate ceremonies, picture taking, and switching a tassel from right to left — we remember that there was a speech, yet we often cannot recall the message itself.  Rather, we remember the sun shining, the crowds of our fellow graduates who we may not see again, and trying to move out all our things amidst the hullabaloo of the weekend.

Since I was not graduating this year, I was able to concentrate more on the speakers’ messages during the ceremonies.  I found that they consistently applauded Duke University for its institutional reputation and the quality of its programs.  Listening to all the rhetoric of pride for being distinctly Duke, I was not sure if I should be “distinctly” proud of the fact that I am a Duke and Kenan graduate.  Certainly, my Duke degrees are “valuable” in the sense that people assume certain things about me by dint of having received a degree from an elite university (sometimes the things assumed are less good).  As I stated, a Duke degree is testament to the hard work required to earn one.  I was raised to be proud of the things I had worked hard at.  But with this degree from a highly-selective University comes the risk of elitism, something I am less proud of.

Nearly all the different orators in their graduation remarks were selling how great Duke was. Almost as if being part of the institution was better than the hard work that has gone into earning the degree.  Yet, what I also heard repetitively was that Duke gives its graduates a critical lens to look at the world and our everyday interactions with others. Whether it’s a critical lens from the Women’s Studies Department, the School of the Environment, or the Kenan Ethics Institute (the three ceremonies I attended this year), those who attended Duke will be able to analyze, problem solve, and voice opinions.
It still seems like a giant fluke that I ended up with a degree from such a fantastic establishment. One of my roommate’s grandparent kept saying the whole weekend “you all are so smart and gonna go so far in life.  You are just so intelligent and lucky you went to such a great school like Duke.” It is easy to think that you’re average in a fishbowl like Duke, surrounded by so many intelligent folks all day everyday.  But the “lucky” part has really stuck with me.  I constantly feel as though I have won the lottery having gone to Duke.   And I feel compelled to do something worthwhile with this prize.   If this credential doesn’t get put into practice in some way later,I will have to wonder what it was for. I think it’s important to take stock of what we have and make sure we persevere utilize this winning lotto ticket to do good .As Coach K said in his commencement speech about teamwork and perseverance, we Duke graduates must to move forward as “good persons.”