Duke graduates say they cherish their school's sense of community most

sbarr@newsobserver.comMay 12, 2013 

— From the field of Wallace Wade Stadium, black-robed Duke Universityy graduates cheered Sunday for their classmates, professors and families – with an extra round of applause to recognize their moms on Mother’s Day.

After the ceremony, they talked about what was special about their just-passed days at Duke.

It’s the people, the graduates said again and again.

“There’s just a great sense of community,” said Laura Kuhlman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy.

After the degrees were awarded and the final bars of the university’s Alma Mater faded from the stadium, the students started a familiar chant – only this time, as alums.

“Let’s go Duke! Let’s go Duke!” they called, and threw their caps into the air.

By the numbers: Duke awarded 1,641 undergraduate degrees and 2,215 graduate and professional degrees. Another 1,212 students who graduated in September or December also were invited to attend the ceremony.

The speaker: Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a two-time Duke graduate, gave the commencement address. The foundation focuses on improving global health, ending global poverty and supporting access to education and information technology in the United States. In 1986, Gates earned a bachelor’s degree from Duke, with majors in computer science and economics. She earned an M.B.A. the following year.

What she said: Gates told graduates that technology is a powerful tool for improving the lives of others.

But, she said, it’s just that – a tool. Its success depends on strong connections between people.

“Deep human connection is very different. It’s not a means to an end. It is the end,” she said. “It’s the purpose of a meaningful life.”

Gates told the graduates that those connections are there for the making if they are willing truly to engage the people they meet – to see the similarities between themselves and others, rather than the differences.

“You can change the way you think about other people,” she said. “You can choose to see their humanity first.”

Gates urged the graduates to use technology to make and strengthen those connections – and to do some good once they’re in place.

“I believe we are finally creating the scientific and technological tools to turn the world into a neighborhood, and that gives you an amazing ethical opportunity,” she said.

Honorary Degrees: The university awarded honorary degrees to Gates and six others: Marguerite Barankitse, Max Dale Cooper, David Sean Ferriero, Henry Louis Gates Jr., William Hunt Gross and Judith A. Jamison.

What’s Next: As they looked to what comes next, the graduates had kind parting words for the friends and classmates they’ve lived with and learned from.

William Reach, a ROTC grad, will enter the Army as a second lieutenant. Reach, a double major in history and political science, said he won’t soon forget his time at Duke.

“It’s been a privilege to study with such smart, talented people,” he said.

Michael Rowland, a visual art major with a certificate in film, said that one of the highlights during his time at Duke was meeting people from many different backgrounds and learning about new cultures.

He loved sitting on the field with his classmates and celebrating their graduation.

“It was exhilarating,” he said.

A Mother’s Day Gift: After the ceremony, graduate Kim Milliam walked down the sidewalk with her husband, James, as their daughters, eight-year-old Sophia and six-year-old Vanessa, scampered around them in celebration.

Milliam earned a master of health science degree and was pleased she could share it with her family, especially on Mother’s Day. She hopes her graduation will inspire her own daughters to work just as hard as she did to reach their goals.

“It was a good present,” Milliam said. “I’m glad they could see it.”

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