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Together at last

The following is an excerpt from President Richard Brodhead's convocation address to freshmen, delivered in the Chapel Wednesday:

Class of 2011, what a happy morning: You're together at last. As recently as March, you were total strangers randomly distributed across this country and the world, with nothing in common but great promise. But now comes the real thing, the assembly of a critical mass of highly combustible talent, the Duke freshman class 1,700 strong, ready to befriend each other and spark each other to an explosion of personal growth. Men and women of 2011, my warmest welcome to Duke.

Like other schools, we talk about these first few days in the language of orientation. As you know, orientation is a compass word-orient means the East, from oriri, to rise; and the word suggests that you'll be lost in space, disoriented, until you learn the coordinates for charting your way. You'll learn many things this week, but my job could be to name the cardinal points of Duke's compass, the values you'll need to observe to navigate this new world. As with the compass, there are four.

First, Duke is a place for excellence. Whether it's on our famous athletic teams or our no-less-famous research activities, this place becomes Duke to the extent that people recognize the difference between the best and the very good and are willing to work the extra measure to achieve the best.

Second, Duke is a place of community. Duke is different from some places where people are driven to outstanding achievement in that at Duke, it's not about doing better than someone else. This is an amazingly friendly place, a place where people of extraordinarily various backgrounds learn to accomplish things together they couldn't achieve on their own. You will find it so. Help keep it so!

Third, every thing we do at Duke is done for the sake of education. By education we mean the continual deepening of your grasp of the world and strengthening of your capacities to act intelligently in that world. Please don't settle for a lesser goal. If you have a smaller aim, you'll get a Duke degree, but you won't get a Duke education.

Excellence pursued as a community toward the end of ongoing education-that's a fair description of Duke's project. But my fourth value is as important as any other, since without it there's no reaching the other three. With my current fondness for the letter E, I'll call it engagement. You've come to a place extraordinarily rich in opportunities.

But like certain famous energy sources, Duke's offerings will remain inert until something is added to start the reaction. The missing ingredient is your personal engagement: your taking the initiative to seek and seize opportunities and to charge them with your energies of mind. I'm not asking that you just keep busy. Being tightly scheduled is not the same thing as being engaged. And I'm not asking that you model your life on anyone else's: the proof that you're engaged will be that your Duke career will have its own distinctive plot, driven by your gifts, your passions, your concerns.

Your class will be the first to have full access to something highly relevant to what I'm describing-the program called (did you guess it?) DukeEngage. We want to challenge you (and will assist you) to find ways to complement your academic study with involvement in real-world problem solving, in settings reaching from Durham around the world.

I could see future versions of you in the Duke students who used their public policy training this summer to help complete a crucial study for the government of New Orleans, where officials singled them out for their vital role helping the city qualify for $300 million in federal disaster funding. Or I could see you in the premed major-a noted member of our women's basketball team-whose blog I've followed while she worked in the highlands of Guatemala introducing small stoves into areas that previously cooked on minimally ventilated indoor fires, causing high levels of respiratory disease.

DukeEngage will make a great complement to the education we give on campus. But being engaged means more than signing up for a program with the word in the title. I'm inviting you to see every chance that comes to you every day as something you could meet either in a more active or in a more detached fashion; and this includes your dealings with each other.

Colleges have no greater joy than the endlessly fresh, utterly unforeseen ways that groups of students come together to do things just because they seem like they would be good or fun to do-play sports, make films, plan concerts or comedy shows, join neighborhood service programs.

This group creativity is a source of exuberant delight, but it's also more than that. The literature of global competitiveness suggests that the people who will have most success in the future won't be those who have mastered fixed skills but those deeply practiced in a flexible, enterprising, self-activating creativity, and in pulling teams together across boundaries to improvise ways to solve problems or capture opportunities.

So if you hang back, if you don't mix it up with all the miscellaneous human talent that now surrounds you, then you're going to lose both short- and long-term: Your present life will be less interesting and your future powers will stay undeveloped.

A great experience awaits you, but more than you have probably imagined, the value of that experience is yours to determine. Invest this place with the full measure of your curiosity, intelligence, creativity, and human warmth and the returns will be, as they say, priceless. We want you not just to attend Duke but to own it. Last spring we admitted you. Now it's time to come take possession.

Richard Brodhead is the ninth president of Duke University.

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