Dempsey tells graduates to find a way to 'make it matter'
At Sunday's Commencement ceremony, graduates of the Class of 2014 were urged to remember their humanity after they toss off their mortarboards.
Graduates from all of Duke's schools convened in Wallace Wade Stadium Sunday morning to hear commencement speaker Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Graduate School ‘84. Dempsey relied on humor, personal anecdotes and advice from his mentors to illustrate the importance of being proactive and present when making use of a Duke education in the outside world—but not before leading the crowd in a chant of “Let’s go Duke” and making a jab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Repeatedly calling on the graduates to “make it matter,” Dempsey noted that students' academic accomplishments are but one part of their personal development in their time at Duke.
“You leave Duke with the intellectual tools to accomplish whatever lies ahead of you,” he said. “I know your resume. But what’s in your heart?”
Graduates must use all of their experience to become a leader of consequence and make their education matter, Dempsey explained. He noted that his own education has surprised him at times, especially the ways in which his liberal arts education at Duke has positively affected his work in the military.
President Richard Brodhead, who presided over Sunday’s ceremony, noted that Dempsey has defined his position as the top military officer in the country by placing a renewed focus on military ethics.
“There were moments… when I wasn’t sure I would make it through Duke,” Dempsey said. “I knew I had to keep trying and I had to keep learning… perhaps in support of the opposite of a well-crafted plan— a sense that in my chosen profession, history might actually find me and that I better be ready. History did find me about 20 years after I left [Duke].”
Dempsey underlined the importance of Duke graduates remaining grounded and retaining humanistic qualities amidst their drive and certainty. He recalled the advice of a mentor who told him to ask himself frequently about the last time he requested that someone change his mind about something, and Dempsey asked that the audience of students remember to do the same.
“The more responsibility you get, the more important that question becomes,” Dempsey said. “You will need to find, fix and remain true to your moral compass.”
Dempsey has served as Chief of Staff of the Army and Commanding General to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command prior to serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He holds two Defense Distinguished Service Medals, four Army Distinguished Service Medals, three Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars with Valor and one Defense Superior Service Medal. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point before serving in the army for eight years and earning a master’s degree in English from Duke.
Although the University typically awards honorary degrees to commencement speakers, Brodhead noted that Dempsey has declined to accept awards while in his current position.
“In your case, Marty, we will have to trust that one Duke degree is enough,” Brodhead said.
Jennifer Sherman, Trinity '14, delivered the student commencement address prior to Dempsey’s speech, focusing on appreciating the humanity of ordinary moments as a complement to the extraordinary opportunities offered by Duke.
“There is this whole education that has been running parallel to the one we recognize today and it doesn’t come with a degree or high honors or a job offer, but it deserves to be celebrated,” Sherman said. “We have also been learning to tell the truth, to take responsibility for our mistakes, to be pregnant with grief and to forgive.”
Sherman told stories of her Duke experience to illustrate her point, stretching back to her freshman year—when she saw her peers cry tears of joy at the first snowfall— and moving across the years to include spending time in Grace’s Café, failing and falling in love.
“Our greatest gifts are not the things that make us extraordinary. Our greatest gifts are the things that make us human,” she concluded. “Congratulations, Duke Class of 2014. With every passing ordinary day, you made Duke extraordinary.”
Students in the audience noted the relatability of Sherman’s speech as fellow undergraduates who have shared many of the same experiences she listed.
“The experiences she talked about over the four years were all things that we’ve been through, so for me I could really relate to her in that sense and those are all experiences that any one of us [had],” said Akshita Iyer, Trinity ‘14.
Five honorary degrees were awarded Sunday. Businessman Erskine Bowles—former president of the University of North Carolina system and former White House Chief of Staff—was awarded a Doctor of Laws. Molecular biologist Carolyn Bertozzi, of the University of California at Berkeley, and W. Delano Meriwether, the first African-American student at the School of Medicine and a physician, philanthropist and track and field champion, were each awarded a Doctor of Science. Neuroscientist and former Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield and Aspen Institute president and former CNN president Walter Isaacson were each awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters.
Sherman’s remarks about the universality of the human experience were manifested in smaller aspects of the ceremony. Many students wore pins reading “RAD 2014,” commemorating senior Rebecca DeNardis, who was killed in a car crash earlier this semester and would have graduated summa cum laude on Sunday.
The ceremony also took place on Mother’s Day, a fact recognized by Dempsey as he thanked requested applause for all the mothers in the audience.
Barbara Talavan, mother of Trinity graduate Lucas Talavan-Becker, noted that the coincidental timing did not detract from either occasion—rather, it added to them both.
“It was a very nice tribute,” she said. “You get to double celebrate. You get to be with your kid on your Mother’s Day.”