Good afternoon. As President, I am thrilled to welcome you as the newest members of the Duke University community.

Though I am coming to you today from Duke Chapel on the heart of our campus, you are part of the most global incoming class in our university’s history. Many of you are watching this opening ceremony from your new dorm rooms; some of you are connected to us virtually from places around the world. A few of you are even starting your Duke careers on our sister campus at Duke Kunshan University—a truly unprecedented feat.

As members of the graduating class of 2020 and the incoming Duke class of 2024, I suspect that you’re getting tired of that word, unprecedented. You will be glad to hear, then, that today is a moment with a great many precedents. 

We have been gathering for an opening ceremony since long before Duke was a university—all the way back in 1906, the Chronicle reported that the forty-eighth academic year of what was then Trinity College began formally with the President, in academic regalia, hoisting the American flag above East Campus while the students gave out a cheer. Things have evolved a bit since then.

This isn’t even the first opening celebration during a pandemic.  A century ago, Spanish flu raged through 1918 and 1919, and was still very much a presence when Trinity College welcomed the incoming class of 1924. It must have been an unsettling time—just as I know this is—the excitement of a new start tinged with apprehension about the world around us. 

Even then, though, students were focused on the important priorities: The Chronicle editorial board wrote with relief that in response to the epidemic, the manager of the basketball team had rearranged the scheduled contests against Carolina and State so that the Trinity team could still compete for the state championship—which, I should note, they went on to win.

For those basketball fans among you: while the state championship title exists today only in spirit, we still regularly win it over our foes at N.C. State and UNC.

Now, if you ask anyone who attended our opening celebrations between 1990 and 2014, I suspect they would tell you that what they remember is hearing from the late poet Maya Angelou, who spoke to incoming first-year students for 24 years. You may be familiar her extraordinary work, or read her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

In an interview toward the end of her life, Professor Angelou was asked what advice she might give for living fully. Her answer reflected both her humor and her generosity of spirit. 

“Every day I awaken, I am grateful,” she said. “My intent is to be totally present in that day. And to laugh as much as possible.”

To be grateful. To be present. And to laugh

It occurs to me that these three guiding principles might be helpful for all of us as we begin the next academic year at Duke.

First comes gratitude. Amidst the uncertainty and frustration that many of us have been experiencing, it can be difficult to remember that we have so much to be thankful for—and this is a vitally important starting point as we set off on this year together.

We at Duke are certainly grateful that you are here. As Dean Guttentag described just a few moments ago, yours is a tremendously accomplished class. Each of you bring something distinct to the Duke community—a unique perspective, a life-changing experience, a talent that sets you apart. 

To borrow from another poet, Walt Whitman, you have come here to contribute your verses to Duke’s powerful play, to forever change the course of our university’s history for the better. We are so thankful for that.

But as remarkable as you all are individually, we know that none of you arrived here on your own. The support, love, and guidance of the people in your life—your parents, families, friends, and teachers, many who may be watching today—has fostered your extraordinary talents, has allowed you to grow into the accomplished people assembled here today. 

I hope that you will take a moment in the coming days to thank them—to let them know that you are truly grateful for all of the ways that have helped bring you to this moment.

In that spirit, let us awaken each day of this new academic year with gratitude. 

Next comes Angelou’s charge to be present. This has perhaps taken on new meaning in the age of social distancing. But what I think she was getting at was not so much physical presence, but rather being present in the mind and spirit. 

In a world filled with distractions, it takes conscious effort to remind ourselves to pause and pay attention. To slow down and really appreciate the opportunities and experiences before us. You have likely come to Duke, at least in part, to prepare for the lifetime that comes after graduation. But I can assure you, those days are coming soon enough. While you’re here, I hope you will take the time to be really present—in your friendships and in the Duke community.

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 among friends on Zoom and in explorations in your free time.  It may be harder in the age of COVID, but you’ll have the rare opportunity to connect with classmates and colleagues from many different backgrounds and perspectives. 

We at Duke have made new commitments to equity, inclusion, and racial justice for all students—efforts that you will be hearing more about in the coming weeks. We invite you to join in building this richer, more inclusive Duke community. If you are willing to connect with your classmates, they will have a great deal to teach you about how to live in and experience the world.

Also, all of us—you, me, indeed every member of the Duke community—must be present to our obligations to do frankly unnatural things we must all do in this pandemic to keep each other and our Durham community safe and healthy.  We can’t let down our guard or give in to those understandable temptations to get back to our “normal” lives.  You and all of your classmates will have to steel yourselves against the inclinations to get on with typical Duke traditions and Duke social life.  

Not now.  Eventually, but not now. 

Instead you will build this semester new traditions

Those connections we make will have to be made from at least six feet away.  We’ll have to learn to back away if we are crowded; we’ll have to simply say no to misguided party invitations; we’ll have to make our face masks badges of Duke pride and wear them everywhere we go. 

To do this for an entire day can be trying; for a week, truly challenging; for an entire semester, achievable only if we maintain our focus and help each other through.  Only if we remain fully present to each other. 

And at the same time, be present to your own needs. The transition to college can be jarring under any circumstances—and you may find it particularly so today. That’s okay—in fact, it’s to be expected. This moment will require great flexibility and resilience, and Duke has robust advisory and mental health resources to support you both as your get your footing here, and as you continue throughout your Duke career. I encourage you to take full advantage.  

And get some sleep.  Without it, none of us can be at our best.  A sleepy brain is not fully present.

So, with a good night’s rest behind us, let us next awake to this new academic year with presence. 

Finally, there is Angelou’s last piece of advice—to awake each day with laughter. 

One of Angelou’s great friends, the writer and theologian Frederick Buechner (BEEKner), told a story that they were both at a very formal ceremony in a cathedral in New York—a place at moment not unlike this one. Buechner noted that the assembled dignitaries were wearing “robes and tassels” and looking very serious.

Angelou smiled and explained to Buechner that enslaved people were not allowed to laugh, as their masters feared it was directed toward them. So they kept an empty barrel—and if any of them felt an urge to laugh, they would act like they were getting something from the barrel and let forth a laugh into it.

When Angelou saw all of these men in robes marching somberly into the cathedral that day, she said, her impulse was to run and find an empty barrel or an empty room and burst into laughter.

The point of the story is that laughter is a critical part of our humanity. And a healthy aspect of our lives: It can be a tremendously powerful antidote to uncertainty and tension. I encourage you, especially in these complicated times, to look for the daily moments of humor and joy that will offer themselves to you in your time here. 

You will undoubtedly experience stress at Duke—it’s a fact of life, and I’ll bet it’s been stressful already just to get here.  But you’ll also have a chance to watch a classmate do stand up in the Bryan Center, to laugh with friends on a suitably distanced walk in Duke Gardens, or to watch with awe as the sun comes up over this Duke Chapel. Such moments of joy are everywhere at Duke, and I hope you will take the time to find them.

In that spirit, let us also awake to this new academic year with laughter and joy. 

Class of 2024, once again, welcome to Duke. You have arrived at a time when things look very different than they ever have before. But in this unprecedented moment, there are great opportunities to be a Duke united in building an even brighter future for our university, the nation, and the world.

In that spirit, and with the words of Maya Angelou echoing in this Chapel where she spoke so many times, I encourage you to awake to this moment of profound opportunity. 

Awake each day with gratitude.

Awake and be present. 

And above all, awake to find the joy in your life as part of this academic community.

Cheers and congratulations.