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Student speaker Leah Rosen will deliver poem at Commencement ceremony Sunday

Courtesy of DukeToday
Courtesy of DukeToday

Hanging on the wall of her bedroom back home is a poem that senior Leah Rosen wrote in fourth grade. Titled “Where I’m From,” it lists trademarks of her childhood—rainy days in the Pacific Northwest, weekend soccer games and a growing love of medicine fostered by her parents.

Although much has changed since Rosen was an 8-year-old living in Oregon, she still writes and loves poetry. And she will be delivering a poem to the University as the student commencement speaker during graduation May 12.

Alongside Rosen will be Lisa Borders, former president and CEO of TIME'S UP, who was chosen to be the Commencement address speaker in February.

Her poem was selected from many speeches submitted by undergraduate and graduate students. It “stood out” to the selection committee as appealing to all graduate candidates and members of the audience, even though Rosen wrote it to herself in a Duke course.

Even though she was not a student enrolled in the course, Rosen, as a teaching assistant, participated in the class’s final project: writing a poem to Duke that featured one’s best and more imperfect moments. 

“To a lot of people, poetry is a great way of capturing a feeling that prose just can’t,” Rosen said.

The poem describes the difference between “being” and “doing,” something Rosen thinks everyone in both academia and the workforce can relate to.

“Parents in the audience might be surprised to hear everything in the poem,” Rosen said. “As students, we don’t want to tell our parents, ‘I’m stressed. I’m overworked. My heart isn’t in what I'm doing.’” 

During her first year, she explained that she “fell into the trap”—in which many Duke students find themselves—of becoming “completely overwhelmed by your work."

“It chews you up, spits you out and tells you to do better,” Rosen said.

However, after going abroad to London during the Fall of her junior year, Rosen experienced more global culture and made deeper personal connections. She reevaluated how she was spending her time and reflected on her motivations.

“Learning shouldn’t be just about copying and studying, it should be about experiences,” Rosen said. “This poem is about the understanding of being and who you are and how that relates to what you do.”

Whereas during her first two years Rosen cared primarily about schoolwork, she has since realized that the people at Duke are what makes it special, resulting in her last year being the happiest yet.

Her favorite times at Duke mainly revolve around her friends, from taking her German roommate to Disney World for the first time to going to Mardi Gras in February. 

“I don’t know if my Duke experience would have been as amazing if I was four years older or younger,” Rosen said. “The people that I’m graduating with are the best. I can’t wait to see what everyone does later in life.”

Rosen’s regrets at Duke are limited, but certainly include never tenting and not seeing former President Barack Obama, one of her personal role models, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill game this year.

She aspires to attend medical school, so she took a humanities approach to the pre-medical curriculum at Duke with her Program II major in illness and identity. 

Specifically, she studies how biological or cultural factors can predispose someone to illness, and how the experience of illness can shape one’s sense of self. Rosen ultimately wants to understand more about the human condition and how it is affected by illnesses.

Her Program II advisor Robert Thompson, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience, spoke to the “very rewarding experience” of getting to know Rosen. The two have known each other since Rosen took one of his courses as a first-year.

“Her intellectual curiosity and passion for ideas are contagious. Her openness and willingness to challenge herself are remarkable, and her commitment to service is a fundamental component of her identity,” Thompson said. “She is one of those special individuals who make a difference in the lives of others.”