Good afternoon! To the great class of 2023, welcome to Duke!
I also want to recognize Provost and Chief Academic Officer Sally Kornbluth, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Gary Bennett, Vice President and Vice Provost for Campus Life Mary Pat McMahon, our deans and administrators, and all of the faculty members who make this community so exceptional.
Well, you are moved in! I was out there on East Campus helping with move-in yesterday morning, and a quick note: If any of you in Jarvis are missing a mini-fridge, I think I left it in one of the common rooms.
And to your parents, siblings, and friends who came to help you move in: well, it’s time. Time for congratulations, and then goodbyes. If you want to stick around, you’ll have to talk to the admissions office about submitting an application.
Otherwise, it’s time for you to take your leave, and leave it to your students begin exploring Duke.
To be sure, there is much to explore. This storied gym, for one, but I have to tell you that you’re not seeing it at its best right now. Come back when one of our volleyball, basketball or fencing teams are on the floor, and this place will be rocking.
But other corners of campus are already bursting with life: from the Rubenstein Arts Center with its light-filled dance studios, to the classrooms and labs where your professors are preparing for your arrival, to the glorious afternoons in the Duke Gardens as we head into the fall.
As you explore, you’ll come across some fascinating corners of the campus. Along a quieter edge of the Gardens, for example, you may discover a granite marker documenting an interesting fact – passing right through the middle of Duke is the 36thparallel of latitude.
From time to time, you might be inclined to think of this campus as a parallel universe, but that’s notthe point of this marker.
When Eratosthenes, the so-called Father of Geography, first attempted to measure the circumference of Earth in the 3rdcentury BCE, he did so by projecting this line, which we now know as the 36thparallel, and which neatly bisects the Strait of Gibraltar, the Greek Islands, and the entire ancient Mediterranean world. In the centuries since, that line has guided untold travelers, dreamers, and explorers … and now, it has brought you here to Duke.
The 36th parallel illustrates just how far this class has come to get here. In its vast lap around the world, the line runs through remarkable places, some of which are very familiar to you or your classmates. It passes through Southern California — where I was born and raised, along with many members of the class of 2023.
The parallel also passes through some of the most embattled – and culturally-significant – places in the Middle East: Tehran, Kurdistan, and Aleppo, Syria. It passes through Jiangsu Province in China, home to three of you along with Duke Kunshan University. It passes just north of Busan, South Korea, home to two of you, and through a thousand smaller towns along the way. Closer to Duke, it cuts directly through Tulsa, Oklahoma and Nashville, Tennessee – are there any Tulsans or Nashvillians here today?
But today, I’d like us to pause for a moment and contemplate the 36thparallel — not just to note a curiosity on our campus, but to think about what these kinds of lines signify. I think there may actually be some interesting lessons for us, here today, when we think about such imaginary lines.
First, lines allow us to map; they help us draw places and to define spaces. And the 36thparallel can literally show you the way while you’re here. In a happy accident of history, Campus Drive almost exactly follows the line. So if you ever get lost somewhere between East Campus and West, I suppose you could navigate old style by using a sextant.
But one way or another, you willbe charting your own course here. A course of study, sure, but also lining up new friendships, clubs, research, producing and performing works of art, playing sports, perhaps traveling abroad. And as you are mapping your way, writing papers, poems, and lab reports while juggling your activities, you may at points feel a bit overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious, or just flat-out lost. When that happens, please reach out for some assistance in navigating.
As Liv McKinney so nicely pointed out, when you lose your line, when you veer off course and become disoriented; it’s not necessarily cause for concern. You may just discover places you’d never imagined, people you’d never expected to befriend; ideas that help you get back on course — if you want – or to rechart your course, or maybe even redraw the whole map.
Second, lines allow us to connect; they can serve as links between disparate points. When Eratosthenes first projected the 36thParallel some twenty-three hundred years ago, he scarcely could have imagined the innumerable connections it has allowed humanity to make – bridging cultures and continents and facilitating a much wider and deeper understanding of our place in the world.
So another way to think about your education is to focus on the points, the places, the people you will draw together– as is often said, learning is about “connecting the dots.” Your roommates, classmates, or teammates, your teachers and advisors will challenge your perspectives and opinions. And, if you are willing to connect with them, they will have a great deal to teach you about how to live in and experience the world. Some of the most remarkable things that you will learn at Duke will be from one another, not in the classroom or lab but in conversations late at night at the dorm, over breakfast in the marketplace, or even while you’re tenting in K-ville. Be open to those connections.
I hope that you will also take these connections as inspiration to draw your own broad connections, across disciplines, over time, between theory and practice. As has no doubt already been made known to you, Duke is a university firmly rooted in the liberal arts – that is, we are committed to a holistic approach to the search for knowledge; we believe that by studying literature, history, and the arts alongside the sciences and math we gain ever more opportunities to draw those connections, and in so doing draw a fuller picture of what it means to be human.
Now, I should close by noting a third function of lines, which is that they allow us to divide; we often draw lines to serve as boundaries.
Just as Eratosthenes could scarcely have forseen the connections facilitated by his imaginary line, he could not have known some of the more dubious purposes that line would serve. Eratosthenes could not have forseen that 19thcentury Americans would use the 36thParallel to draw the northern boundary of slavery in the Missouri Compromise – a compromise that may have forestalled but could not prevent the nation’s journey toward Civil War. Or that the 36thParallel would mark the boundary of the no-fly zone in Iraq, and the front lines in the Syrian Civil War.
Today, we are confronted around the globe by intense divisions over disputed boundaries, and border lines over which goods and people, and ideas, travel.
When we draw lines, we often oversimplify. We risk missing a truth that is much more complicated, and richer, and blurrier than our imaginary lines suggest. And if we confuse the lines we draw with reality, we risk embracing division over connection. We risk letting our own boundaries box us in.
Confronting that risk means reaching over those lines that would otherwise limit our worldview. If we truly listen to our neighbors, listen carefully, and voice our disagreements with them respectfully, we will emerge with a much fuller idea of our place in the world. Reaching out to make connections – especially connections across the boundaries that encircle us – reminds us that the lines that we thinkdivide us are only imaginary. We become open to people, students of the world, seeking to learn from our neighbors rather than draw boundaries against them.
Over the course of your four years here, I hope you will be a boundary crosser, that you will seek out what interests you, what challenges you, what scares you, what excites you. Are you planning to conduct biomedical research? Try a short-story writing workshop, and you could write science fiction about genetic engineering. Is art history your strength? Why not take a chemistry class that can teach you about methods for dating paint pigments?
But there is one boundary I hope you willdraw. I know how exhilarating life at Duke can be. I know how driven Duke students can be. The fear of missing out can get the best of us. Our drive is admirable, but it can drive us to distraction. It can wear us down.
So, I hope each of you draws another imaginary line, one that says I need some space; some space to relax; some space to reflect; some space to focus on my health. And please: Get. Some. Sleep.
Not now! Stay with me …
I do want to emphasize this last point – the research clearly demonstrates that you are not at your best without adequate rest.
One great way to rest is to take in the Gardens. Please do that now and again. And next time you do, maybe you will pause to reflect at that marker of the 36thParallel of Latitude.
Eratosthenes believed that this line was the center of the world. And while our scientific understanding has certainly evolved in recent centuries, when it came to our campus, he might have gotten it right. Here before you at Duke, along that imaginary line that traces the road between East Campus and West, an entire universe of knowledge awaits your exploration.
So, brave explorers in the class of 2023, may the next four years take you on a remarkable journey of discovery that begins now.
Congratulations, and welcome.