As Duke conferred more than 5,500 graduate, professional and undergraduate degrees Sunday, Tim Cook—Fuqua ’88 and a member of Duke’s Board of Trustees—told the graduates to be “fearless” when confronting the world’s challenges. 

Cook, the CEO of Apple, returned to campus 30 years after earning his Master of Business Administration degree and told graduates they are uniquely qualified and responsible to build a better way forward.

“If you hope to change the world, you must find your fearlessness,” Cook said.

He noted that on graduation day, concerns such as finding jobs and paying off student loans may be on students' minds, but he urged them to not let that stand in the way of making a difference. 

Fearlessness, he said, means taking the first step without knowing where it leads and being driven by a higher purpose rather than by applause. He referenced the students of Parkland, Fla., who refuse to be silent about gun violence; women who are part of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, who “cast light into dark places;” and those who fight for immigrants' rights as examples of fearlessness.

“It is in those truly trying moments that the fearless inspire us,” Cook said. 

Cook drew from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 speech in Page Auditorium, saying that one day there would be atonement not just for the words and actions of bad people, but also for the “appalling silence and indifference of the good people who stood around and say [to] wait on time.”

He noted the courage of the young students who worked under King and the challenges they faced. He urged the graduates to not accept the status quo and to be innovative. 

“Don’t just accept the world you inherit today, don’t just accept the status quo,” he said. “No big challenge has ever been solved and no lasting improvement has ever been achieved unless people dare to try something different.”

Cook dared the graduates to think differently. He said he was lucky to learn from his friend and mentor Steve Jobs that changing the world starts by following a vision instead of a path.

Reflecting on his time at Duke, Cook advised the graduates to look forward. 

“I have wonderful memories here studying—and not studying—with people I count as friends to this day. Cheering at Cameron for every victory, and even louder when that victory was over North Carolina,” Cook said. “Look back over your shoulder fondly and say goodbye to act one of your life, and then quickly look forward. Act two begins today.”

He told the graduates that they are entering the world at a time of “great challenge,” pointing to a divided nation, global warming and inequalities in schools. But Cook said they are not powerless in the face of those problems. 

No generation has had more power to change things faster than the graduates, he said, explaining that the pace at which progress occurs has accelerated dramatically. With the assistance of technology, every individual is capable of building a better world, making this the best time to be alive, he argued.  

“Whatever you choose to do with your life, wherever your passion takes you, I urge you to take the power you have been given and use it for good,” he said. “Aspire to leave this world better than you found it.” 

He told the graduates they should be the last people to accept things the way they are, and that they should be the first to change it. 

“So today’s ceremony isn’t just about presenting you with a degree,” Cook said. “It’s about presenting you with a question—how will you challenge the status quo? How will you push the world forward?”

Senior Deeksha Malhotra, the student speaker, asked her fellow graduates to consider the question “How much do you know?” Pulling from Helen Keller, she noted that a smart mind should always have more questions than answers. 

She drew from American chemist Sandra Greer’s comparison of knowledge to a bubble, noting that for every three times it grows, its contact with the outside world grows nine times. The more one’s knowledge expands, she explained, the more one would become aware of all there was to know and the more questions one would have. 

“After all, did we all expect to walk out tomorrow smart? Did we think that by now we would know?” Malhotra said. “Instead, I stand before you more aware of all that I don’t know than I’ve ever been before.”

Although that may make it seem like the graduates are “spineless skeptics,” she said, Malhotra made it clear that “we are not without our backbones.” She took note of the camaraderie she found at Duke, saying that after a nomadic childhood she did not think she would ever find a “genuine, pulsing” community. 

“Without all of you, I wouldn’t be half the woman I am today,” Malhotra said. “And that much, Class of 2018, I know I know.”

President Vincent Price, in his first commencement at Duke, presided over the ceremony. In addition to the more than 5,500 earned degrees Duke awarded Sunday, the University also conferred six honorary degrees at commencement. 

The honorees included Chinamanda Ngozi Adichie, a novelist, MacArthur fellow and activist; Mary Barra, chairman and CEO of General Motors Company; William “Bill” Bell, the former mayor of Durham; Phil Freelon, the lead architect for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; William Kaelin, Trinity '78 and School of Medicine '82, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and Russell Robinson II, Trinity '54 and Law School '56, a philanthropist and attorney.