Speakers at Duke’s Sunday graduation ceremony advised the assembled students to consider qualities that go beyond greatness.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski focused on attitude and collaboration. And from Shannon Beckham, the senior chosen to give a speech on behalf of her undergraduate classmates, it was goodness – not just succeeding, but successfully helping others – that got all the attention.
Beckaham asked for some tough introspection.
“Who here is a good person?” she asked, and the crowd laughed after only a few hands went up in the early morning sun at Wallace Wade Stadium. After years spent in classrooms, perhaps the students thought this was one day they wouldn’t have to raise their hands.
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Beckham pressed on. Being successful and having empathy, she said, are not mutually exclusive.
Just in the last year, she said, Duke has shown progressive values – renaming its former Main Quad after Julian Abele, the black architect who designed Duke Chapel during the Jim Crow era, and publicly playing a Muslim call to prayer on campus for the first time. She urged students to take such examples to heart.
“We have the potential to do something good while our ambition pushes us to do something great,” she said.
Coach K’s advice
Krzyzewski, Duke’s Hall of Fame basketball coach, gave the keynote address.
Basking in his first commencement speech, Krzyzewski said he has turned down many other offers because he wanted his first to be at Duke. He joked about how he had never worn an academic robe before – he graduated in an Army uniform at the United States Military Academy at West Point – but that he liked it and might start wearing on the sidelines instead of a suit.
After he was finished with jokes about robes, his recent knee and hernia surgeries and his decades in North Carolina – “I say y’all now,” he said, with some incredulity – Krzyzewski launched into a speech about success and passion.
Nothing will hold you back, he told the students, except your own heart.
“Whatever degree you have and whatever degrees you hope to get, there’s nothing more important than attitude,” Krzyzewski said. “And it’s your choice.”
Speaking without notes, he also couldn’t resist another joke, about the infamous Shooters II nightclub near campus.
“You don’t sit on the quad waiting for great things to happen,” Krzyzewski said. “You don’t go to Shooters – well, maybe for some other great things – but you cannot sit and wait for great things to happen.”
Building on Beckham’s mandate to do good, Krzyzewski advised graduates to find good people before anything else.
“You aren’t going to do it alone,” he said. “Great things don’t usually happen to a single person. They happen to teams.”
Where grads are heading
Sarah Bender, a 21-year-old public policy major, is bound for Philadelphia and a mobile app company.
With Venture for America, which places recent college grads in startups, she’ll be working for Tassl. It’s developing an app aimed at keeping colleges in touch with millennial graduates like her.
“Not just donations, but also gauging how many people go to (sports) viewing parties, and things like that,” she said.
Blair Holliday, the former Duke football player who nearly died in a 2012 accident, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He has an internship lined up with Fox Sports, according to a feature on his recovery in Sunday’s News & Observer.
Andre Aganbi, 23, barely missed out on graduating from Duke twice within a year. He received a bachelor’s degree in engineering 53 weeks ago, he said, and was receiving a master’s in engineering management on Sunday.
But like Bender and Holliday, he has no plans to work within his field. He’s headed to Washington, D.C., for a job in the financial world with Capital One.
“Most of my bachelors class didn’t end up as engineers,” Aganbi said. “Places say ‘You’re good at math, so come on.’”
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran