Instead of making the annual mad rush to the C1 bus on the morning of convocation, Duke’s Class of 2024 livestreamed the event on YouTube from their dorm rooms and homes in Durham and around the world.
At noon Thursday, around 700 first-years, parents and other members of the Duke community took to their computer screens to watch Duke leaders speak to the empty pews of the Duke Chapel during Duke's first-ever virtual convocation. With open arms and reassuring words, the speakers welcomed the Class of 2024 to what is sure to be a year unlike any other. Each speaker approached the Chapel podium wearing a cloth face mask and was shown putting it back on as they finished speaking.
President Vincent Price, the final speaker of the event, reminded the audience to cling to three guiding principles amid all the strangeness that will accompany the fall semester: gratitude, presence and laughter. He said his inspiration for these principles came from the late poet Maya Angelou, who spoke to incoming Duke first-years at 24 convocation ceremonies.
Price reminded viewers that despite the hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, every incoming first-year has “so much to be thankful for,” including family, friends and mentors who supported them on their journey to Duke.
“The support, the love, the guidance of the people in your lives, your parents, families, friends, and teachers, have fostered your extraordinary talents and have allowed you to grow into the accomplished people you are today. I hope that you will take a moment in the coming days to thank them,” Price said.
“In that spirit, let us awaken each day of this new academic year with gratitude,” he pronounced.
Next, Price explored the implications of Angelou’s commitment to being present physically, mentally and spiritually, every day, even in a pandemic-stricken world.
“In a world filled with distractions, it takes conscious effort to remind ourselves to pause, to pay attention, to slow down. You’ve likely come to Duke at least in part to prepare for that lifetime that comes after graduation, but I can assure you that those days are coming soon enough,” Price said.
He urged students to be fully present in their relationships and academic explorations while at Duke and to focus on building genuine connections.
Price recognized that part of being present in the Duke community requires the assumption of responsibility for each other’s safety.
“We can’t let down our guard or give in to those understandable temptations to go back to our normal lives,” he said. “You and all of your classmates will have to steel yourselves against the inclinations to just get on with typical Duke traditions and Duke social life.”
Finally, Price reminded students to seek joy and laughter during these tense times. “Laughter is a critical part of our community, and a healthy aspect of our lives. It can be a tremendously powerful antidote to uncertainty and tension,” he said.
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Students were greeted in a joint opening message from Duke Chapel Dean Luke A. Powry; Elana Friedman, campus rabbi for Jewish life at Duke; and Joshua Salaam, chaplain and director of the Center for Muslim Life.
Duke Student Government President Tommy Hessel followed, and began his speech by reminding students of the importance of the relationships they will build during their time at Duke.
“I encourage everyone here to grow with the support from this family around you, amidst all the changes this year has in store,” he said.
The central piece of advice Hessel offered to the Class of 2024 was that “self-discovery requires active exploration.”
He explained that this exploration can take many different forms, from attending campus performances and events to talking to professors and making new friends, but suggested that students remain especially vigilant in the journey to find themselves in the face of the pandemic.
“With our limited in-person interactions this year, it would be easy to remain content and not push your own boundaries. But you all are part of the Duke family now. We will continue to push our boundaries and pursue our dreams despite COVID, despite national policy and despite all the world throws at us,” Hessel said.
Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Cristoph Guttentag outlined the defining features of this year’s incoming students.
“This year represents the culmination of a process that, while always challenging and stressful, started out more or less normally and ended like nothing we’d ever seen before,” Guttentag said.
While members of the Class of 2024 have grown used to hearing about how unique their experience will be, Guttentag said that he wanted to focus briefly on ways in which incoming first-years are similar to classes before them.
“You’re a diverse group, very much like our other classes,” he said. The Class of 2024 comes from 58 counties, 47 states and 882 cities and towns, said Guttentag, and half are students of color.
Guttentag said that the admissions office was struck by the Class of 2024’s commitment to making a difference in their communities and families, but he focused particularly on their capacity for resilience.
“We were looking for resilience when we read your applications. And we saw plenty of it. But to be honest, when we admitted you, we didn’t expect that many of you to need to be this resilient, this soon. But you’ve done great so far,” Guttentag said.
“It gives me great pleasure to present to my colleagues at Duke, to President Price, and to the entire Duke community the talented, engaged, kind and resilient Class of 2024,” Guttentag finished.
The Class of 2024 was also welcomed by Provost Sally Kornbluth; Valerie Ashby, dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences; and Ravi V. Bellamkonda, the dean of the Pratt School of Engineering.