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Convocation Message to New Students: Think Big, Reach Out, Lead On

Channeling Harriet Tubman, Confucius, and Usher during convocation on August 19, Nan M. Jokerst encouraged new graduate and professional students to pursue their dreams without reservation, tap into the scholarly community at Duke, and embrace leadership opportunities. 

"Let me leave you with the following challenges," said Jokerst, the J.A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"Reach out beyond your comfort zone! Don't stay inside. Think big! Move with confidence! You are here for a reason. We accepted you, and we expect a lot of you, and you can live up to our expectations. Share yourself with each other and with us, and delve into the great depths of what Duke and our Duke community have to offer." (Full text of Jokerst's speech)

In addition to Jokerst, the ceremony at Page Auditorium also saw President Richard H. Brodhead and other university leaders welcome new graduate and professional students. Brodhead also encouraged students to explore all that Duke and Durham have to offer. (Convocation video)

Convocation Photos


Convocation Video 


Nan M. Jokerst's Convocation Speech

Thank you, Dean McClain, for your gracious introduction. I am honored to join President Brodhead, Provost Kornbluth, Executive Vice President Trask, the Deans, and my faculty colleagues to welcome you, our newest graduate students, as you set out on your journey of exploration at Duke.

Your first steps today into graduate school are the beginnings of a voyage, a voyage of scholarly exploration, and a unique time in your lives when you will be able to delve deeply into your passions, to innovate around your ideas, and to explore paths of your own choosing. In this adventure, you are both an individual and a member of a community of scholars.

As an individual, you are here to explore your own personal dreams and passions, and you are the person that can realize your dreams.

As activist Harriet Tubman said,

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

You have dreams, I have dreams, every single one of us has dreams. And our dreams change with time, they change with the currents in the rivers of our lives as we flow through time, rushing sometimes, rocky other times, and sometimes slow and placid. In your path through life, you have already achieved one goal – to attend graduate school at Duke. You have worked hard to sit in that seat that you are sitting in today. You have earned a place for yourself in that seat here at Duke. We, the faculty, believe in you. We read your application for admission, and we chose to admit each of you, individually, as the next generation of students who we want to teach and to share our lives with.

Sitting here, today, at Duke, you are at a pivotal point in your life. You are in a transition period, starting out on a new adventure in learning and discovery. Graduate school is the essential time in your life when you can delve deeply into a topic, to explore your fascinations, and to make decisions that will lead you on the path to the “who” that you will become as you traverse your life.

How will you move closer to your destination on this journey? Dreams and passion are the motivation and driving force that must be built on a foundation of your determination, your energy, your creativity, and your effort. Duke offers the knowledge and resources for you to explore your ideas. So think big! You, you are the key that opens the door to your own success.

Your journey will reveal opportunities and challenges, you will have fun and you will toil long hours. Remember to keep your eye on your goal, through the good times and the hard times.

In the words of the musician Usher,

“Success is about dedication. You may not be where you want to be or do what you want to do when you're on the journey. But you've got to be willing to have vision and foresight that leads you to an incredible end.”

What incredible end will you dedicate yourself to in your studies at Duke?

Will that incredible end have an impact on your world? Will you have an impact here at Duke, and after your graduate?

The answer to those questions lies with you. Will you exert the effort that success demands? Your commitment, determination, and effort in your graduate work will be the hallmarks of your success. It’s up to you.

As author Tony Robbins stated,

“The only limit to your impact is your imagination and commitment.”

Imagine Big. Don’t hesitate to take on a challenge because it is difficult. The easy work was done long ago when it was still difficult. And don’t hold part of your effort, yourself, in reserve. Jump in 100 percent. Your studies deserve nothing less than your best attempt to succeed. Don’t reserve a part of yourself so that you can justify a lack of success.

As the philosopher Confucius said,

“The cautious seldom err.”

So instead of holding back, give 100 percent of yourself, and at the same time, realize that very little that is new is understood initially or works the first time. Stay engaged, ask for help, learn, and work with confidence!

As inventor Henry Ford said,

“If you think you can do a thing, or you think you can’t do a thing, then you’re right.”

As scholars, you know that everything that we say, everything that we study, everything that we do lies within the context of the greater world. And that is as true of ourselves as it is of our research.

We are individuals in the context of a community of scholars, both in your chosen field of study and in the community at Duke. The lessons that we learn, and the knowledge that we create are built upon the imaginations and efforts of our predecessors. You are joining our Duke community of scholars today – this is your rite of passage – and it is again up to you to become an integral part of our community.

What does it mean to become a part of the Duke community? First, it is a responsibility to uphold and protect the integrity of our scholarly efforts. Second, it is a call to reach out to each other – to our fellow students, to our faculty mentors – to support each other toward our individual and collective visions of our future. Will we always agree with each other? I hope not! Discourse is the fire that fuels innovation. Will we always respect each other? I hope so! Respect is the basis for the trust that we need to explore and innovate with confidence. Will we meet a wide variety of diverse people? You bet! And that diversity brings variety and depth to our conversations and explorations. Together as a scholarly community, we can innovate and succeed farther and faster than we can alone.

What will these scholarly communities mean to you? My hope for you is that it means friendship, a sense of belonging, and kindred spirits who share your passions. However, you can attend Duke and pass through without leaving a trace, without having an impact on others. But then you will miss one of the most important opportunities that Duke has to offer: the network of students and faculty that will last throughout your lifetime. I encourage you to reach out to other students and to faculty, and to teachers and researchers inside and outside of Duke, inside and outside of your personal field of study, to enrich your studies and to broaden your perspective.

Broadening your perspective is a particular strength of Duke, since we are well known for multidisciplinary studies, seeking knowledge at the overlapping boundaries between fields, and integrating the information of one field into another. So reach out! Talk to your fellow students, ask them about their studies, and listen. Listen to what they say to you. And ask. Ask them questions about what they know and what they imagine. And create. Create a bridge between yourself and your fellow students, and between you and your faculty mentors, and walk across that bridge to a deeper understanding of your field and of yourself. Access and utilize the fact that Duke encourages discourse across boundaries of fields, and take advantage of the rich environment that Duke presents to you in multidisciplinary endeavors.

The bridges that we build through our endeavors can create new knowledge, new fields of inquiry, and yield new questions. Even if we don’t know where the end of the bridge may lie, if we dare to walk that bridge, we are brave, and we are leaders. Many of you, our new graduate students, will become our next generation of leaders. Strive to share your capabilities with your communities, and if you lead with integrity and respect, you will have an impact upon the world.

As President John F. Kennedy said,

“Leadership and learning are indispensible to one another.”

So don’t hesitate to accept a position of leadership when asked, or to volunteer to lead when the opportunity arises. Step out with confidence, and share your knowledge and capabilities with others.

Let me leave you with the following challenges: Reach out beyond your comfort zone! Don't stay inside. Think big! Move with confidence! You are here for a reason. We accepted you, and we expect a lot of you, and you can live up to our expectations. Share yourself with each other and with us, and delve into the great depths of what Duke and our Duke community have to offer.

I wish you the very best in your graduate and professional studies, and welcome once again to Duke.