Lasting impressions: What it really means to be great
“Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first spoke these words at an Atlanta church on a chilly morning in 1968. Today, in 2014, at a finally warm Duke University, I think there are two important things to take away from this. First, for our friends over in Pratt, there’s a comforting sense of relief because, if we’re being honest with ourselves, many of you guys never truly grasped how to make your subjects and verbs agree—just kidding. Secondly, and more seriously, I hear a reminder today that our greatness and worth are measured by the content of our character, not by the impressiveness of our accolades. While the lines on our resumes and the glow of our degrees will fade, the love and service we uphold in our daily lives will remain.
In our Duke world of seemingly never-ending applications and interviews and exams, this is a lesson that really can’t be emphasized enough. To make all of this a bit more personal, I ask you to think about those in the Duke community—could be peers, advisers, professors or administrators—who have truly impacted your life. Maybe it was through a night of discussion to help you through your lowest point, a night of celebration in your proudest moment or maybe it was even a simple conversation out on what’s left of the Plaza that made all the difference in the world to you. Even play along with me for a moment and close your eyes for just a minute to think.
When you step back and consider those that come to mind, it wasn’t an impressive knowledge of physics or a high GPA or a prestigious degree that made the difference. It was something greater, something resembling—as Dr. King might have called it—a “heart of grace.”
Beyond the personal level, we’ve seen this “heart of grace” overflow to service the larger Duke community. We’ve seen classmates pouring hours and hours into events that unite Duke together—concerts like Old Duke, performances like Awaaz and Me Too Monologues and athletic events across 26 varsity sports teams. I’ve said it before, but I’ll never forget the response of Duke seniors excitedly asking to volunteer as mentors for freshmen in need of support. And I’ll absolutely never forget seeing them hang out with their freshman mentees on campus…in public! If that’s not a “soul generated by love,” I’m honestly not sure what is.
Many Duke students have made far-reaching impacts on our local and global communities, too. I think of the fact that over 100 organizations across all Duke undergrad and grad schools are devoting tens of thousands of hours to the Durham community every year. I think of the Duke students standing here who led innovative initiatives—to mentor children whose parents have cancer, to provide personal care for the elderly, to promote greater access to medicines developed at universities and to bring justice to innocent people wrongfully convicted of crimes. Duke students have truly demonstrated immeasurable love and noble service to people all across the world.
And yet, despite the impressive nature of these bold accomplishments of service, the more personal acts of service tend to come to the front of our minds. That fact makes me think of our classmate Becky DeNardis. She was an individual with extraordinary accomplishments and accolades, to be sure. But, as we soak in people’s reflections about her, it’s her compassionate love that shines through far, far beyond all else. Her hallmates in Round Table remember her neighborly warmth, her students in the Comp Sci department remember her patience and genuine concern for others and we today remember a strong, caring young woman who forever etched her mark on the hearts of so many of her peers by spending time with them when they needed her most.
What we will all be remembered for most are these very personal moments of kindness, encouragement and compassion. They are instances that don’t necessarily get vocalized or publicized, but they are the occasions that strengthened us, that kept our heads up and that made us proud of who we are.
And to the Senior Class of 2014 in particular—as we begin to move into the future together, I hope that we’ll always remember that our greatness does not stem from the awards we achieve, as impressive as they might be. No, our greatness arises from the moments in which we see the people around us in need, and we show them genuine, patient, unselfish love. These moments are what will make our collective legacy last, and they are what we will hold with us as we leave this place together. These moments are what each of us will think of… every time we close our eyes.
Andrew Leon Hanna is a Trinity senior and the senior class president.