Surrounded by 1,700 of their new classmates and stained glass windows, the Class of 2016 reflected on the “rainbows in their clouds.”
Maya Angelou, distinguished writer and professor of American studies at Wake Forest University, addressed freshmen in the Duke Chapel for the twenty-third time on Sunday, weaving personal stories with literature and occasional humor to encourage humility and giving.
Following an introduction by junior Isalyn Connell, president of Delta Gamma sorority, and a long standing ovation from her audience, Angelou reminded the crowd that she, like everybody else, benefitted from those who came before her.
“I really have become Maya Angelou because of the rainbows in my clouds—the people who didn’t have to shine their lights on my path but chose to,” Angelou said.
Students were “paid for” long before they realized it, she said. Parents, friends, teachers, colleagues, authors and ancestors, far removed from the Class of 2016 by time and distance, all helped the students pay their way to Duke. For Angelou, these men and women enlightened her and in turn inspired her to share her knowledge with others.
Angelou shared episodes from her life when family members, friends and teachers stepped in to offer support. Angelou’s Uncle Billy, a “crippled, black and poor” relative in rural Arkansas, taught Angelou how to multiply at a young age. After meeting the mayor of Little Rock at Uncle Billy’s funeral, Angelou learned that the mayor had also learned his times tables from Uncle Billy. She was overcome by gratitude.
Angelou pushed students to use the opportunities around them to help others, just like Uncle Billy. “Look at you,” Angelou said. “Young, for the most part pretty, able to go to Duke, intelligent. Imagine how you will be able to help somebody.”
Throughout the afternoon, Angelou quoted her personal inspirations, including William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, African American poet James Weldon Johnson and her immediate family. She encouraged students to seek out their own muses during their time at Duke, while giving something back both to their peers and teachers. For instance, she said if a professor has office hours at 2:00 p.m., students should arrive at 1:45.
Angelou also advised careful study, frequent self-reflection and laughter.
“Try not to be pedagogic. Just talk normally to people,” she said. “Please laugh. I know you didn’t laugh when I said something funny.... I don’t trust people who don’t laugh.”
As hundreds of students filed out of the Chapel, many stopped at the tables set up by the Honor Council and avowed their commitment to the Duke Community Standard. Freshman Roshni Prakash, who signed her name in support of the Community Standard, said Dr. Angelou’s convocation address let the students know that they each can inspire others.
“Being at Duke is all about that,” Prakash said. “You can always affect someone else. The Duke Community Standard embodies that.”
In addition to its core message of humility and gratitude, Angelou’s autobiographical references reminded students to reexamine their own stories. Freshman Kari Barclay said Angelou’s speech was the highlight of Orientation Week.
“The speech was very electrifying,” Barclay said. “Every word grabbed onto you and pulled you in. Every time she said ‘imagine,’ something stirred in you that pushed you to action.”