Freshman Convocation

✔✔✔ Good day, fellow Dukies. FC here. A change of pace this morning -- from our usual probative and provocative essays to one that is merely pro-Duke. Tomorrow we return to full form: some very disturbing questions about the Duke Global Health Institute.

Universities have such nice ceremonies to mark great occasions and transitions.

The most notable is Commencement; at Duke it means bringing forth 4,000 men and women into the community of educated people and casting them "on life's broad sea," to quote from the Alma Mater.

Freshman Convocation is a close second (plus the separate afternoon ceremony welcoming new graduate and professional school students.)

Where else can you find a cadre of otherwise intelligent and sane professors -- on an August day in Durham that is often torrid -- wearing heat-clinging robes from medieval times? Garb modified over the generations only by the addition of some color and the substitution of chapeaus in some cases for mortar boards.

✔ And so as music fills the choir, nave and transepts, reverberating forcefully from Indiana limestone and Guastavino tile, the Class of 2015 assembles.

In the organ, there are 6,700 pipes at work, ranging in size from a soda straw to 32 feet in length. Traditionalists know this as the Aeolian, named for its manufacturer. More recently, a brilliant restoration and addition of a Festival Trumpet with 61 pipes resulted in the re-dedication of this munificent instrument for alum Kathleen McClendon.

✔ In FC's view, the highlight is the exuberance. Duke has captured 1,725 students who represent 46 states and 55 countries and it's time to cheer.

Perhaps even more exuberant than the students, radiant in fact, is the Dean of Admissions Christof Guttentag, who is marking his 19th class of freshmen. (Written at 2 AM today; we did not want to wake him up to confirm that total)

He arrived in 1992, just two years out of graduate school at Penn where he studied not administration, but musicology.

So how did these kids get in? "We're most interested in those students who will challenge us, make original discoveries, use their leadership skills in new venues, and take advantage of the depth as well as the breadth of this university's offerings.

"We (find) the ambitious and the curious, students who want to tackle issues head-on and are open to change. Duke is a community of talented learners, and we look for people who have unique qualities, who can challenge us as much as we challenge them.

"We want some bumps. We want some students who are well-rounded, some with sharp edges. We want people who are not afraid to undertake things that are messy, complex, and extremely difficult to do well —- because they love it. We like students who already know what it means to succeed and those who know what it means to reach and not succeed and reach again. We like students who make intelligent and interesting mistakes, students who understand that only in risking failure do we become stronger, better, and smarter."

Guttentag says Duke undergraduates are "the most engaged, brilliant, passionate, and funny students in the world."

Funny? Yes, funny. He loves to read a list of weird e-mail addresses and internet handles used by the people going through the very serious business of seeking to come to Duke.

✔ Loyal Readers, in case you are wondering, California produced the most students, with 191 (11 percent), then North Carolina with 185 (11 percent), and third was New York with 152 (9 percent) and then Florida with 126 (7 percent).

This is the last time any of these people will be identified this way, that is, by their hometowns and state. From now on, they are from Duke.

And more statistics: This year’s class sets a record for the number of blacks in a first-year class (192 or roughly 11 percent), and includes the third-highest number of both Latino (117) and Asian freshmen (450) in the school’s history. More than 11 percent (200) are from other countries.

Guttentag again: "Our selection process focuses on the nature of the class as a whole and on the combinations of qualities of the individuals that comprise it. I think that at times many of us participating in -- or observing -- the admissions process think of or describe applicants in terms of a few of their many attributes or identifiers; ultimately, though, my staff and I always consider them as individual people and—as such—potential members of the Duke community.

"It’s an intensely personal process. Ultimately each decision is based on our sense of the student as a whole—the sum of all of his or her characteristics, accomplishments, qualities, attributes, and contexts as well as we can understand them —- and how that person would benefit from and what that person would offer to the communities of which they will be a part.

"The class of 2015 .... around 1720 individuals -— talented, interesting, and engaged-— who can be grouped and categorized in all kinds of ways, but ... in the end (we) thought the match between the individual and the institution was a particularly good one."

And finally this thought: "While I’m excited by and quite interested in the truly exceptional applicants, the ones who look like they’ll have an immediate and visible impact on Duke while they’re here and on the world once they leave, my greater focus is actually on the absolutely terrific young women and men who make up the overwhelming majority of the class. and who have as much potential to be world-changers as the identified superstar coming out of high school.

"I expect all of my admissions colleagues would agree that the predictions we make about our applicants are imperfect, and that we’re always struck —- and generally very pleased -— by how students change, grow, and develop while they’re in college. Part of what makes Duke so special is the environment created by the unique combination of all of the students (and adults) who are here together."

✔ In our book, the second highlight of Convocation comes from the Vice Provost for all things undergraduate, Dean Steve Nowicki. Interrupting his formal remarks, he leads the class in its first chant of "GO DUKE."

Small suggestion. Get everyone to stand for the chant. This will grab every one's undivided attention, and the diaphragm works better.

Thank you for reading Fact Checker and loving Duke.

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