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To the Class of 2008

To the Parents of the Class of 2008: Let the Learning Begin!

For one second, drop the pre-med manual. You may secretly be undermining your child’s college education.

As your new Dukie begins to choose among the vast array of courses, activities, and experiences this grand university has to offer, please keep in mind that your son or daughter is coming to Duke to get an education, in preparation for all the challenges of life ahead. We inhabit a world that is increasingly characterized by dynamism and uncertainty; the goal of a liberal arts education is to create citizens who can respond to this volatile climate in nuanced, introspective ways.

Like this world in which we live, a successful Duke education takes its twists and turns, following a path at times but meandering off-road at others. What I ask of you is to let your child navigate this educational course.

It may have already started with that tough, but all-too-familiar, decision between the pre-med and pre-law orientation sessions. Still, I would challenge you further. Let’s take a look at three outstanding graduates from the Class of 2004:

Jonas Swartz, a Durham resident who designed his own Program II major while at Duke, did field research into the first Bush administration’s decision-making process during the Persian Gulf War. Not only did he study declassified documents meant for a handful of select advisors to the president, but through his archival work he connected with Robert Gates, former CIA director and a principal decision-maker in the president’s advisory council. In a personal interview, Gates told Swartz that one reason the administration steered clear of Baghdad was to avoid getting caught in an indefinite occupation of Iraq.

Sarah Pierce, a chemistry major, began an independent study the summer after her junior year analyzing material that a Duke art museum conservator “steam cleaned” from statue samples with the aid of a special laser. The experience gave her a greater respect for art conservation, and during her final academic year at Duke, she traveled to Florence, Italy, to deliver a scientific paper on the results of the laser-cleaning experiments. In this unusual union of the sciences and humanities, Pierce found her niche.

Chia Lun Huang returned to her native Taiwan, bringing a group of Taiwanese-American college students with her to help them find internships. Vision Youth Action, a non-profit organization that matches Taiwanese-American students with nonprofit groups in Taiwan, was born from that trip. But Huang spent considerable time at Duke exploring other cultures. She had enrolled in the “Changing Faces of Russia” FOCUS program and spent fall break in St. Petersburg, Russia. Huang, who attended high school in Shanghai, found herself comparing the two Communist-influenced cities. She explored cultural dynamics in America, working with a neighborhood revitalization group in Chicago as part of the Service Opportunities in Leadership program. And now after graduation, with a grant from Duke’s Asian and Pacific Studies Institute, she is researching how the governments of Singapore and Hong Kong use scholarships to American universities to further their national priorities.

I offer these profiles not as models for each freshman to follow, but rather as shining examples of the varied outcomes a Duke education can produce. Finding your own path in life is tough work, but following a path that has been laid and set out neatly before you is no life at all.

In his 2002 address to the freshmen of Yale College, our new president Richard Brodhead spoke on this very subject, “Learning by Choice and by Chance”:

“You’ll get the good of this place to the extent that you engage it actively and intentionally; to the extent that you explore the field of possibilities flexibly and broadly; and to the extent that you open yourself to new experience in the widest possible array. You could succeed in getting very little from this place if you approach it with passivity, an eagerness to follow the many, or the willingness just to do what we ask…. If you want a real education, you can’t be excessively concerned to chart it all in advance.”

President Brodhead’s words ring as true for Duke as they do for Yale. Freshmen will discover shortly that, broadly speaking, there are two Dukes, and on this campus we suffer from an overconcentration of cultural capital in one: the Greek scene, the hook-up culture, trajectories that are driven far too much by money and prestige, and not enough by raw intellectual passion.

Freshmen, this place is now yours to make anew, to refocus. And as you change what it means to be a Duke undergraduate, I trust you will change yourself.

This type of education may not always be “the best years of your life;” in fact, you may find yourself at your personal worst. But through this constant, open-ended self-realization—even if you end up along the same path you now have in mind—you will know why you have constructed it.

So, parents, welcome to Duke! Now let your young men and women find the best of it, for themselves


Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior.


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