Orientation week closing speaker Melissa Harris-Perry urged freshmen to be “ignorant, silent and thick” Saturday evening.
Harris-Perry—presidential endowed professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University and host of the weekly MSNBC show “Melissa Harris-Perry”—gave advice emphasizing humility, vulnerability and the importance of listening during in an interactive address to freshmen in the newly reopened Page Auditorium. She also instructed students to continuously ask the question “So, what? What difference does that make?”
“This is the question I want you to ask over and over again every day of college because you will be bombarded with information, you will learn so many things,” she said. “We tend to think that what we want are definitive answers, what we want is certainty. But I actually want to suggest that we don’t want certainty. We want meaning.”
Harris-Perry suggested that this question will help give meaning to students’ time at Duke.
“What difference will you make? What difference will it make to anyone in the world that you are here? How will Duke be different because you are here?” she asked. “Asking the question won’t make you snarky, it should make you earnest.”
Harris-Perry received her Ph.D. in political science from Duke in 1999 and is the author of two books about race and gender in American life. She is also the director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center on Gender, Race and Politics in the South and executive director of the Pro Humanitate Institute.
“Duke is important to me because here I was taught how to answer my life’s calling, which is to be a teacher and professor,” she told the nearly full auditorium.
As closing speaker of orientation week, Harris-Perry filled the role historically occupied by Maya Angelou, who Harris-Perry considered a mentor before Angelou passed in 2014. She explained that once, during her time as an undergraduate at Wake Forest, she told Angelou that she would have to drop her class due to an illness. Instead of disappointment, she said Angelou reacted with concern and offered her a job answering fan mail.
“She invited me in, not to become a student in her class, but her student. She became my beloved mentor,” Harris-Perry said. “You worshipped her because of her humanity.”
She noted that while she was not as good at giving advice as Angelou, she would try to channel her.
“We knew it would be a risk to bring her, but she was phenomenal,” said Jordan Hale, director and assistant dean for new student programs. “I couldn’t be happier. I think she honored [Angelou] while at the same time telling her own story.”
After her talk, Harris-Perry fielded questions from the audience on topics ranging from social justice on college campuses to the misuse of alcohol. She encouraged students looking to make change in the world not to overlook their own school by questioning internal issues such as the University’s employment practices.
“It was profoundly better than I expected,” freshman Cullen Tyndall said. “A lot of what she said hit home in a lot of ways.”
The event was co-sponsored by Delta Gamma Sorority, which helped bring Maya Angelou to speak to the freshman class for the first time in 1994.
Senior Candice Nelson, who said she “snuck in” to hear Harris-Perry, said the message allowed her to both reflect on her time at Duke and look ahead.
“I thought she brought up some interesting points I had never considered,” Nelson said. “It made me think of ways I could make the most of my last year here.”