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David Distenfeld

At commencement, Duke University Improv member David Distenfeld will face his biggest crowd on campus yet.

Distenfeld, a senior, was chosen by the student speaker selection committee to address students, faculty and family during Sunday’s graduation ceremonies.

“David is very involved with DUI and is comfortable on the stage, a natural performer,” said Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek, who served on the selection committee. “His speaking style and delivery are quite strong…. He has a nice balance between humor, nostalgia and inspiration.”

Considering Distenfeld is in the same position as his fellow graduates, he said his speech does not offer a lot of advice. Instead, he said he wants to present his experiences at Duke in a way that appeals to all students.

He added that the improvisation process “Yes, and...” will be incorporated throughout his speech. “Yes, and...” requires actors to always answer questions from other improvisers with “Yes,” then expand on the idea to further action in the scene and refine the actor’s character. Distenfeld said it is a concept fitting for a graduation speech because it can be applied to life after Duke.

“It’s the idea that, at Duke and beyond, it’s not just good enough to say, ‘Yes,’ and do something. You have figure out a way to inject your own perspective in it,” Distenfeld said. “I want [audience members] to find their own personal, ‘Yes and,’ moment.”

Distenfeld said he immediately had the idea for the speech when he heard about the search for a student speaker. He knew several former student speakers at graduation were also members of DUI, which led him to consider applying.

“It’s kind of a mini tradition within our group,” Distenfeld said.

Distenfeld and 27 other applicants submitted drafts of their speeches for three rounds of review by the committee, which consisted of students, faculty and administrators from the Alumni Association. Generally, the committee focused on content and delivery, Wasiolek said, but additional criteria were also considered.

“There has to be something in the speech that is Duke-specific, such as fond memories, particular events or Duke experiences that can strike a chord with graduating students,” she said. “[There also needs to be] a message that is inspiring… that might on that particular day make folks sit back and think for a moment and reflect on time at Duke, but also think about what life will hold after Duke.”

In the first round of review, the committee looked at content and whether the speech fit the audience. The speeches were submitted in writing anonymously to the committee, which later narrowed the pool to eight speakers who were invited to deliver their speeches orally to the committee.

In the third round, two students delivered their speeches a final time after making revisions based on suggestions from the committee.

Senior Tracy Gold, a member of the student speaker selection committee, said there were many good speeches, but a consensus emerged in support of Distenfeld’s.

“He does a really good job relating ‘Yes, and...’ to the way it has shaped his life and the way that it applies to life at Duke and beyond Duke,” Gold said.


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