Shanice McLean’s mother, three aunts, grandmother and cousins flew in from Los Angeles last week and on Sunday wore clear ponchos against the showers as they waited for Duke University to make it official: A little rain wasn’t going to stop them from seeing the first person in their family get a college degree.
“We are definitely going to be here,” said McLean’s aunt Michelle Scott, 45.
McLean received one of the 5,100 degrees bestowed upon undergraduates, graduates and professionals at Duke’s 9 a.m. commencement ceremony. Under a gray sky, graduates and their parents sat through light showers falling on and off at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in downtown Durham.
The ceremony was held at the ballpark because of renovations at the standard venue, Wallace Wade Stadium. Duke officials handed out granola bars, water and ponchos to the expected 13,000 attendees.
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About 1,671 undergraduates and 2,395 graduate and professional students received degrees. An additional 1,096 students who graduated in September or December were invited to participate in Sunday’s event. Six people received honorary degrees, including Renée Fleming, the opera singer and four-time Grammy winner who sung on the “Lord of Rings” soundtrack, and jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, a five-time Grammy winner and member of the original John Coltrane Quartet.
The commencement address came from Paul Farmer, a Duke alumnus, anthropologist and physician who is chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of the division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Farmer, a Duke trustee, also co-founded international nonprofit Partners In Health, which provides health care services, does research and advocates for people who are sick and living in poverty in Haiti and other countries.
‘He broke the mold’
Farmer’s 40-minute speech received a mixed response from students, some of whom took to social media to express dismay, boredom and confusion while Farmer was still talking. Other students interviewed described the speech in varied terms: goofy, weird, rambling, interesting, fun and inspirational.
“He broke the mold with that one,” said graduate Chisom Ama, 21.
Farmer’s speech wound through a variety of topics – his desire for his daughter to attend Duke, his work with farmers in Haiti and his path to Harvard, where he earned a medical degree and a doctorate in medical anthropology; and his struggle to understand a Sports Illustrated article on a basketball player.
Along the way, he threw out inside Duke jokes in the form of shout-outs to departments, professors, mothers and graduating basketball player Quinn Cook. Farmer also told a story about attending a basketball game and then running to retreat after receiving a glare from an opposing player he had yelled at.
Those comments ultimately led to advice in which Farmer encouraged students to reject the notion that students can’t understand the views of others, their suffering or their dismay.
“Imagine what medicine or nursing would be like if we maintain that it is not possible to treat leukemia, or empathize with a patient with leukemia unless we ourselves have endured it,” he said. “We understand what someone being choked means when he says, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
Grads excited about future
Farmer also said that students should be prepared for disappointments and shouldn’t forget how lucky they are to live in a world not limited by poverty and social ills. He advised them to use their knowledge, empathy and patience to solve those problems.
“Just as empathy can be cultured, so too can knowledge be put in the service to community,” he said.
Graduate Kristen Murray, 22, said the speech and some of Farmer’s comments, including associating attending basketball games with post traumatic stress disorder, were “inappropriate.” Murray felt as though the speech was too centered on Farmer.
Beyond the speech, students said they are relieved to be graduating and excited about their future. They were sad to say goodbye to the Duke community that has pushed them, nurtured them and comforted them.
The day was the culmination of an experience in which students learned who they are and what they want to do in the world, said graduate Rachel Albright, 21.
After the ceremony, Sheryl Murphy and Ed Jablonski were taking picture after picture with their son Ward Jablonski, 26, who received a master’s in engineering management.
Murphy, of Friendswood, Texas, said she wasn’t sure her son would have a future after he was in a severe car accident at age 19 and suffered massive head trauma.
“He was basically dead on the side of the road,” she said. But he crawled his way back, and he now has a job testing engines that could eventually take humans to Mars.
“I am just so proud,” said Murphy, 57. “He is my miracle child.”