Welcome to Blue Devil Days April 2013

June 19, 2013

Welcome to Duke. If you have been accepted at Duke, you have most likely been accepted at a variety of other equally high ranking and prestigious and hard- driving institutions. We admit it—Duke is on a fabulous, speedy, upward trajectory and is at its most selective ever this year. We love this fact. But we would ALSO like to invite you to stop worrying about why you got in and begin to enjoy things. You are probably trying now to figure out the difference between your images of Duke—what you expected—and what you now see. You are trying to decide whether this place fits with the work you want to do, the people you want to get to know, and most importantly, the person you yourself want to become. You are probably feeling the tension that everyone feels in this volatile economy: how much can I afford to explore, and how much can I NOT afford to explore? Will my major be linked to a job, or do I believe all those reports out there that suggest that my major doesn’t matter, but my skill set does?

These are crucial and exciting questions, and they should be at the center of your life as you begin to think through your college choice. And you have taken the time to come and check us out—not accidentally, of course, when the azaleas are blooming, the lawn is newly green, and the stones freshly scrubbed from our recent alumni weekend as well as our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first African American matriculant of Duke.  And yes, we planned it this way. We planned it this way, because we want you to come and be with us on this gorgeous campus. But more importantly, we want you to become who you are meant to become at Duke University. We think Duke can provide the best possible environment for you to grow into the most magnificent, vibrant, and engaged person that you can possibly be.

Let me tell you the reasons why we think you are right for us and we are right for you. And I am going tell you why by telling you some stories from this past year—stories that I have come to call “Duke moments.”  Duke moments are those times when you realize that you are at an extraordinary place—a place that never stops moving, whose unbounded ambition is mixed with extraordinary compassion. 

You are probably thinking about a number of universities which focus on research, and which offer a number of opportunities for undergraduate research.  But only Duke can be the place for the Emily Harris’ story—where the boundary between work and play in a lab is completely blurred, and where this year ended with unexpected exhilarating surprise.  Here is her blog from her lab:

My lab is a fantastic place to work. Though, after writing that, I question whether I can consider my activities in the lab work in the first place. My lab seems more like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: A place of “pure imagination” where “what you’ll see will defy explanation.” Our results often don’t have a clear explanation at first glance. Also, it seems that everyone in my lab (especially my mentor, Dr. Wisler) constantly has a sense of enthusiastic, playful energy about their experiments, despite the frustrations that come with research. As cliche as it may sound, the members of the Lefkowitz lab honestly seem to love what they do. The lab is a creative, innovative place, and the genuine, unknowing trial and experimentation that defines research often makes the members of my lab seem more like children at play than professionals at work. Even my PI, Dr. Lefkowitz, mentioned to me in conversation that he doesn’t feel like he really “works” all that hard, simply because he so thoroughly enjoys every minute of what he does. There is an almost mystical sense of imagination that fills my lab. While, yes, there is such a thing as proper lab technique, nobody gets anywhere in a research career by following all the rules and copying exactly what others have done. It is uniquely inspired creativity and ingenuity of a new idea that allows for the greatest discoveries. The whole point of research is to discover previously unrealized knowledge. As such, a playful openness and inventiveness fills my lab and generates an environment conducive to new ideas. Like kids, researchers have to be creative enough to imagine new ways to approach experiments, and must be carefree enough to share and test out their ideas in practice. The lab is a place in which new ideas are cultivated, and the researchers are the people daring enough to test them out. My mentor often jokes that he and the other researchers in the lab are “living the dream.” I truly believe that they are.

Emily wrote this several months before Bob Lefkowitz learned that he had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry—even though he didn’t have a degree in Chemistry. Everyone thinks that Emily sought out her Nobel Prize professor and he welcomed her in. That is partially true. But Bob Lefkowitz welcomed Emily in long before he had any thought of winning the Nobel. He just thought she was great, and there was a good fit. Can you imagine what it was like for Emily to learn that this random and not so random lab she had decided to work in was suddenly at the center of world attention? Now that is a Duke moment.

You are probably considering a number of wonderful universities who boast vibrant study abroad programs. But very few work in immersive environments that also address the world’s most pressing issues: This year at Duke, twelve undergraduates working with the Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics traveled to Egypt and Nepal for a month of research with refugees. The students are participants in DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted, a program sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Education . In this program, students engage in team-based research on refugee populations—particularly on the nature and dynamics of displacement. Students on this program learn methods of field research. They also study the sociology of migration, the health effects of large scale movements, and the legal situations that many refugees find themselves in.  In this year’s program, one group traveled to Egypt to work with Iraqi refugees, and another traveled to Nepal to work with refugees from Bhutan. Their goal: to talk with refugee families and create documentaries of their experience.

What is more, several of these students came back to participate in the refugee tutoring program. As the program’s website explains, “The program pairs Duke undergraduate tutors and refugee students with the goal of providing mentorship, assistance with schoolwork, English tutoring, and a supportive community. While tutors help with studying and homework, their primary job is to encourage the students, support their creativity and potential, and help students to develop and achieve ambitious goals. Through the relationships developed in this class, college students help mentor and inspire younger students by sharing their own passion for learning.”

Students learning about refugee populations, and then traveling to two countries to work with refugee families. Then coming back to tutor families from those same areas in Durham. Intense academic learning, experiential learning, and service learning, all wrapped into one. Now that is a Duke moment.

You have probably been considering many different schools with fabulous athletic programs. But Duke is the only place where you can integrate the life of the mind and the life of the body in a respectful, engaged ways. This past year, Duke had national fencing champions, Olympic divers, heptathlon champions in track and field. Those same young athletes are wondering about their psychology majors, wondering about pre-med courses of study, and how to combine the study of math and the study of religion.  This past year I was talking with some young Duke athletes—a runner, a baseball player, and a crew team member, and members of the board of trustees. And I asked the students whether their athletic experience changed their classroom experience. And the baseball player said, “Yes, we’re more respected in the classroom because of our athletic experience.” And the others chimed in: Yes, there’s the fact of teamwork, and discipline, and social organization. Other students know all of that about our lives, and so they listen to us differently.”  As their dean I walked away inspired: what other place in the nation could say that students, because of the discipline of the body, were also respected in the arena of the life of the mind? Now that is a Duke moment. This is truly a place where the two can come together in inspiring ways.

Let me end by telling you one final story. This past year we challenged the students in a service learning environment to “find your question.” What is the question that you will never get tired of asking, and will never fully know the answer to you? What is the question that you will live your whole life? It was a passing remark we made in a student and faculty discussion, but the discussion went viral. The students loved this challenge. We made the error of inviting students to send me their question, and our inboxes were even more overstuffed than usual. And there were events set up where students could share their question. There is now a face-book page where students are displaying their questions. Now that, too, is a Duke moment.

Duke is a place where people live their questions. And we would like to invite you here to discover what your question is. Come to Duke to find out what that driving curiosity is in your life—and begin to realize its power. And oh, yes. Have a wonderful weekend.