Around two weeks ago, it was announced that Josh Kun, Trinity ’93, had been chosen as a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. Kun is a cultural historian whose work, to quote his MacArthur profile, explores “the ways in which the arts and popular culture are conduits for cross-cultural exchange.” Last week, when I spoke with Kun—who is a professor of communication in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism—I asked him how his view of Duke had changed in the years since graduation.

“There’s no way I’d be doing any of this without what happened to me at Duke,” Kun said. “Being able to have intimate access to some of the most experimental, radical and risk-taking intellectuals in the country…totally turned my mind inside out and made me think, ‘I want to spend the rest of my life being a scholar but being a scholar in a broader sense.’”

According to its mission statement, “Duke University seeks to engage the mind, elevate the spirit, and stimulate the best effort of all who are associated with the University.” These are ambitious goals for any institution, let alone one populated predominately by teenagers and twenty-somethings, many of whom are still fond of “Super Smash Bros.” and beer pong. But at Duke, a fancy for cheap entertainment and warm beer doesn’t preclude students from engaging their minds, elevating their spirits or putting forth their best efforts. The point is that I don’t think the university’s mission statement is overly-ambitious.

Then again, I might just be optimistic after having interviewed a MacArthur genius. Duke’s mission statement calls on us to“advance the frontiers of knowledge and contribute boldly to…scholarship.” I think you would be hard-pressed to find many alumni who fit the bill better than Kun with his vibrant analysis and presentation of lost historical narratives.

“A big part of my own motivation is to keep having a good time and keep being curious and excited about the work that I do,” said Kun as he spoke about some concerts and exhibitions he had curated. He added, “The thing you produce ought to, if we do it right, reflect your deep personal investment in these projects.”

And really that’s what it takes when it comes to fulfilling a mission statement: personal investment.

The university’s job isn’t to put its students on the path towards a 7-series Jaguar and six-figure salary; it’s to provide a framework in which those curious teens and twenty-somethings can develop their passions and find some work they feel is worth doing. Kun and all the other students who’ve come through Duke aren’t the products of some academic manufacturing line, they’re the sum of a back-and-forth between institution and individual, with a whole lot more emphasis on the latter than the former.

I think of a recent headline I saw in The Chronicle: “Student war journalist recounts experiences covering conflicts in Africa.” The titular journalist is senior Rajiv Golla. The article briefly summarizes his latest trip abroad, which found him weaving through Uganda, South Sudan, India and Mali. To the student concerned with fulfilling his natural science requirement or coming across well in an interview for an on-campus internship, the concept of taking time off from school to embed with a rebel military group in the middle of a civil war is the stuff of fiction. It was to me.

I think of Golla because his career at Duke is indicative of the opportunities students have to chart the course of their journeys as they interact with the university. Golla wanted to write but didn’t gel with The Chronicle, so he started ReadCONTRA, enlisting the help of DUhatch. He wanted to go abroad but had reservations about DukeEngage, so he gathered enough funds through Kenan and gigs as a freelance journalist to travel through east Africa. He’s like the Frank Sinatra of undergraduate academia.

Golla has become an obsessive expert in parsing through the resources Duke has to offer and pinpointing the parts of the university he wants to explore. Last week in Vondy, Golla admitted that for much of his sophomore year, he had let his academic obligations go to the wayside so he could “study South Sudan and make contacts within the rebel and government movements.” And still, Duke had provided an invaluable treasure chest of resources—professors to bounce ideas off of, alumni to consult and funding networks to tap into.

At the heart of both Kun and Golla’s Duke experiences are the ideals of the mission statement, wrapped up in a willingness to embrace and study the past and present through unconventional exciting avenues.

Kun joined the theoretical revolutions of critical theory and queer theory and cultural studies centered in Duke’s literature, English and film departments, while Golla went far beyond Durham to study a different kind of revolution hidden away in downtown Nairobi. By their own admission, Duke has played an important role in informing and fostering their work, and really, that’s the most a university’s mission statement can ask for.

Golla is currently working on a book proposal, so when I spoke with Kun, I asked him what sort of advice he might give to a young academic interested in hands-on research.

He told me, “If you have the privilege and opportunity to pursue scholarship…then you should do it with all the heart and all the passion you can put into it with the commitment to making sure your ideas can be applied and understood across as many audiences as possible.”

And it’s that attention to accessibility, that yearning for potential discourse that makes the work of Kun and Golla important to discerning the responsibility of Duke to its students. The most basic requirement of the university is to warmly respond when a student speaks to it, even if only in a whisper. I’d like to think that the university is here for the taking; that for those students who hurl themselves with enough force in the direction of passion, a professor or student group or campus organization will be at the other end with a hand to lend.

Jake Parker is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “thinking too much, feeling too little,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.