Many first met Ken Jeong when he jumped out of the trunk of a car to the utter horror of Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis.
But as President Vincent Price said when he introduced Jeong, Trinity ‘90, that comical scene in “The Hangover” does not begin to capture his essence. That became obvious as soon as Jeong took the podium and proudly proclaimed “Dr. Ken has come back home.”
It didn’t take long for Jeong to transition from laughter to tears as he reminded the Class of 2020 that he’s there for “whatever you need.”
“That’s why I’m here, that’s why we’re all here: to get through this together. Because we collectively are Duke.”
He acknowledged his sister—“a [Benjamin N. Duke] Scholar and smarter than me, but whatever”—and his father, a retired economics professor whose dream it was to have his children go to Duke.
Jeong was raised in Greensboro, N.C. and grew up with the goal of attending Duke. “For me, just to be a student here, I had already won,” he said.
He described himself as a “snot-nosed kid” when he got to Duke and never envisioned he’d be giving the commencement speech one day. He recalled fond memories of his early time at Duke, such as starting a chant against former University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill basketball player King Rice in 1988: “Oh, no, not Rice!”
“And we won, and I earned it, and it was because of me,” Jeong joked.
“And granted, he came back the next year, scored 30 points and we lost, but that’s beside the point.”
‘All we need right now is to find ourselves’
Jeong described himself as an “everyday Duke student,” believing he didn’t have the legacy and honors his fellow honorary degree recipients had.
“All I have in life to offer is my heart, and I’m offering that to you right now. All I have is love. And if that is the only thing you get out of this: to love one another, to find your identity, to find your flow in life, that’s all we need. All we need right now is to find ourselves.”
In college, Jeong didn’t want to be an actor. He was a pre-medical student. But a theater acting class changed his life. “I was just overcome with this passion and emotion to perform that has not been extinguished since,” Jeong remembered.
He went on to participate in Duke Drama and Hoof n’ Horn but recalled that his Duke Drama audition was “heartbreaking” because he didn’t know who he was. He didn’t have confidence that he could perform, act and spend his life making people laugh, nor the confidence to double major and pursue his love for both medicine and theater.
So Jeong put himself into his pre-medical studies, thinking he’d go on to be a doctor and spend his life thinking about “the guy he could have been,” but be content nonetheless.
“It was the most difficult period of my life during Duke: to try to discover my identity.”
In a moment of comedic relief, Jeong recalled a line from football head coach David Cutcliffe a few years ago: “Ken went to [UNC School of Medicine], which is why he became a comedian.”
But Jeong noted that despite all the turbulence, he found “exactly who [he] was” at Duke.” He said he wouldn’t have his fame, livelihood, values or family if it weren’t for Duke.
“It’s because of Duke. I owe you everything.”
‘Don’t deny your potential’
Throughout the pandemic, Jeong highlighted two popular phrases: “don’t deny the science” and “let science dictate policy.”
“And to the Class of 2020, don’t deny your potential. I’m living proof of what your potential can be. If you have an idea, follow it. Find your flow.”
Jeong said his whole life’s mission has been to find his flow, something graduates can do if they keep an open mind while at Duke. He told graduates to never sell themselves short like he did at Duke.
“True success at the end of the day is capitalizing on your own uniqueness. Find your integrative self.”
Jeong described using medicine and science as his art. He listened to patients, listened to their symptoms, analyzed results and used critical thinking to make decisions with that information.
He emphasized the importance of critical thinking, noting that “the best critical thinkers are the best leaders.”
“Find your passion, find your identity and use both to lead.”
Be part of the solution
Jeong knows that he doesn’t have his life all figured out and embraces the fact that he’s always learning and evolving. He called on graduates to pursue learning and change in the same way he has.
“Keep searching and keep moving forward because eventually, you can be part of the solution and not the problem. That is what a true Duke graduate does.”
For Jeong, “we’re all at a new chapter in our lives, and we’re all resetting ourselves because of the pandemic.” And he knows he’s also part of this reset.
“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do tomorrow, but I know what I’ll always do is keep learning. I will never stop evolving because you never know.”
Jeong found a way to embrace his uncertain future, even though he didn’t know where his path would take him. But throughout his speech, he made people laugh and brought joy to a community—something he’s always known deep down he was meant to do.
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Leah Boyd is a Pratt senior and a social chair of The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 117.