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Convocation Speaker: Challenge Yourself to Go Beyond Ordinary

President Richard H. Brodhead and other Duke University leaders welcomed new graduate and professional students during convocation at Duke Chapel on August 20.

"Although you will have your base in some one school or department, if I can make a single point to you today, it is this: You do not have a restricted-access ticket to Duke University," Brodhead told the newcomers, encouraging them to explore all that the university has to offer. "Everything that happens at this university is there for you."

Arlie Petters, the Benjamin Powell Professor and professor of mathematics, physics and business administration, delivered the convocation speech (full text of the speech) and offered a few tips:

  • Try not to miss any classes
  • Proactively chase down the help you need
  • Don't get so overconfident that you stop working hard
  • Challenge yourself to do something beyond the ordinary

"To go beyond the ordinary, you can't be a 'scaredy cat,' " Petters said. "Challenge yourself to do something beyond the ordinary."

Photo: Convocation speaker Arlie Petters


Video of Convocation


Photos from Convocation and Post-Convocation Reception


Full Text of the Convocation Speech

The Extraordinary in You

Arlie Petters

Dean McClain, thank you for such a kind introduction. You are someone I truly admire.

President Brodhead, Provost Kornbluth, Executive Vice President Trask, deans, faculty, and staff, please join me in a big welcome of our new graduate and professional students!

I can remember my first week on campus. It is an energizing and exciting time. It is also a time when you meet many new and interesting people. It marks a new beginning, a fresh page, one bursting with possibilities.

In the midst of all this excitement and anticipation, I want to ask you a question. By a show of hand, how many of you are feeling nervous about the classes you have to take? There is probably a knot in your stomach as you think about “How will I do on my first homework or first test?”

I have another question, by a show of hand, how many of your think you are a genius? … Now people, remember you are in a place of worship. How many of you think you are a genius?

After all these years, I can still remember my early days of grad school. I recall being super-confident. I had grad school fever. At my undergrad institution I was a top student in math and physics. I got four prizes at graduation, so why not feel super-confident?

Well, I never forgot my first homework in grad school. The professor came and dropped all the graded homework sets on my desk, told me to take mine and pass along the rest. I started flipping through and saw 20/20, 19/20, 19.5/20, and so on. Would you believe mine was at the bottom of the pile? I got the lowest score in the class. It was an 18 out of 20. That immediately cured my fever.

When I asked, “How many of you are feeling nervous about the classes you have to take?”, I know that some of you are sitting quietly feeling anxious, but will not raise your hand because you do not want those around you to know you are nervous, perhaps due to how they may perceive you. And, I know that some of you think you are a genius, but did not raise your hand.

It is precisely the internal tension between the anxiety you feel from taking on this new challenge and the confidence needed to excel in the face of this challenge that will shape you.

You do not come to a place like Duke to be ordinary. You come here to be extraordinary! But, if you want to do something extraordinary, you must believe that there is something extraordinary about you.

So, first things first, your admission to Duke was not a mistake. If you ever served on an admissions committee, you will see that the process is thorough. No one gets in by mistake. Since the gatekeepers let you in, they saw something special in you.

Indeed, the tension between believing that there is something extraordinary about you and the anxiety you feel about the realities connected with sustaining that belief … will test you. The venue where this test will occur every week is in a classroom. 

Here are some practical tips:

First, try not to miss any of your classes. It is the fundamental portal to yourhigher learning. And, when your professor asks the class a question that you don’t know the answer to, but Johnny Genius in the other row blurts out the answer with lightning speed, you may feel inadequate, less smart, or even like an imposter. Those feelings are like viruses—don’t let them infect you, disorient you, or discourage you.

Use the lectures, homework sets, and tests, as a means to identify any gaps in your background and systematically fill them. This, of course, will require you to admit that you have academic gaps. In fact, Duke has amazing resources to nurture your development, but bear in mind that no one will serve them to you on a platter. You must proactively chase down the help you need. 

And, I do have some advice for Johnny Genius. Don’t get so overconfident that you feel you don’t need to keep working hard. Interestingly, I’ve noticed over the years that the students who grandstand in class usually don’t turn out to be at the top of the class. While someone grandstands, his fellow students are quietly ramping up their game … and the tortoise beats the hare to the finish line.

It is that old-fashion systematic slugging—incremental step after incremental step—that unrelenting determination which will strengthen your ability, fortify your confidence, and bring out the extraordinary in you.

Finally, to go beyond the ordinary, you can’t be a “scaredy cat.” Challenge yourself to do something beyond the ordinary. When I was a grad student, I became captivated by the shadow patterns cast in the universe by the gravitational fields of matter and black holes. In my thesis, I took on the ambitious challenge of developing a mathematical theory of these cosmic shadows. The work opened a new research area in mathematical physics and launched my career. I would not have achieved this if I were an intellectual “scaredy cat.”

In closing, if deep down you want to do something extraordinary with your life—whether to become a world leader in a field or create the next great business innovation—then you are at the right place.

Duke is the place to bring out the extraordinary in you!