Duke University Alumni Magazine



fter my eleven continuous years at Duke and four different degrees, graduation exercises have become something of an inside joke in my family. This spring, when I received my J.D. from Duke's law school, family, friends, and colleagues wondered what degree I would pursue next. After all, they said, a B.S., an M.S., and a Ph.D. in engineering were all well and good, but that still left medical school, divinity school, and the Nicholas School of the Environment. Why stop now?

As I expected, graduation was deja vu, complete with my mother's insisting on being the very first person to get a seat in Wallace Wade Stadium and my father's insisting on carrying fifty pounds of camera equipment. The only real difference was the weight of my graduation robes and the color of my tassel. I wore two hoods this year--Ph.D. and J.D.--along with the impressive Duke-blue doctoral gown that my family gave me for my birthday. As I sat there with my law-school colleagues and looked around at all of the younger students waiting to receive their bachelor's degrees, I thought about how much Duke has changed since I first set foot on campus in 1988.

There's no question that academic standards have skyrocketed over the past decade. Today's students are brighter, more highly motivated, and more focused on their studies. Yet I'm left wondering whether many of these same students are missing much of the out-of-the-classroom education that I took for granted a decade ago. Current students spend far less time partying--or even relaxing--than the students I remember from my undergraduate days. I have vivid memories of raucous Thursday night parties the first semester of my freshman year that ended at two in the morning. Then I would retrieve my knapsack from the empty classroom where I had stowed it and commence studying for my Friday morning, first-year chemistry quiz. Most of today's students, living under the new alcohol policy, can't fathom such a lifestyle.

Today, there appears to be a much greater focus, from the very moment a student sets foot on campus, on reaching the next step, whether it's graduate or professional school or a career. When I entered Duke, I knew I wanted to go on to law school, but I was one of the few over-anxious students who insisted on meeting with the pre-law dean as early as my sophomore year. At that time, conventional wisdom for aspiring law students consisted of no more than a brief pep talk: Get good grades, have a good time, and check back before senior year. Times have changed. Students are advised to begin early planning their careers. This year at an undergraduate symposium, one dean emphasized the importance of beginning individual research through independent studies during the freshman year.

I learned about these new challenges and expectations when I came eye-to-eye with Duke students for the first time as an instructor during my graduate-school years and later as an adjunct professor in mechanical engineering, a position I hold today. As a residential adviser for the last seven years, however, I've learned to my dismay that there appears to be a direct correlation between increasing SAT scores and decreasing common sense. All too often, our students don't think before they act, and the Internet and e-mail have made the results of poor judgment instantaneous as students send messages they could never give face to face. I've also seen quite a bit of old-fashioned carelessness, such as the time I raced into a smoke-filled dorm room in an evacuated building only to find the charcoal-briquette-like remains of a roast beef sandwich in a student's microwave, or the several times I've comforted crying students who had managed to flush their keys down the toilet.

To today's Duke undergraduates, take it from someone who's been there. These are lessons that no one should wait eleven years to learn:

  • Duke administrators, from the president's office to the housekeeping offices, work incredibly long hours to make the university function efficiently and effectively. The fact that their work oftentimes goes unnoticed is a sure sign of what a good job they do.

  • Contrary to popular belief, all Duke students were not born grasping the keys to sport-utility vehicles in their little hands. Four out of ten Duke students receive financial aid and live at Duke on very limited resources. Just this year I sat for hours with a distraught resident of my dormitory whose divorced parents were fighting over tuition bills, resulting in her being frozen out of drop-add due to nonpayment.

  • The unsung heroes of the university are the members of the student affairs division, who operate behind the scenes to handle countless student problems, all day and all night, every day of the week.

  • The K in DUKE stands for Krzyzewski. No matter how much studying awaits you, do not miss a chance to learn about leadership from one of the best.

  • Your conduct and grades at Duke follow you to any graduate-program admissions office and to many job interviews. Honorable behavior and hard work are the foundation of success.

  • The relationships you build with faculty members and administrators can last a lifetime, just like your friendships with fellow Duke students. It's worth your time to learn about the people who surround you at Duke.

  • Enjoy the Gothic Wonderland while you can. In the rest of the world, they actually expect you to pay your phone bills on time.

When I arrived at Duke in August 1988, I had no gray hair. As I leave, I have plenty, mixed in with the brown. But living with Duke students has kept me young. This spring I packed up my room and moved off campus for the last time. Although I've grown accustomed to living out of a box, I look forward to graduating from my dorm-size MicroFridge to a real kitchen. I look forward to a full night's sleep, with no one knocking on my door at three in the morning in need of assistance. I look forward to not having to take--or grade--final exams in December and May. But most of all, I look forward to my alumni seats in the rafters of Cameron.

Watkins B.S.E. '92, M.S. '93, Ph.D. '96, J.D. '99 is a visiting assistant professor in the mechanical engineering and materials science department at Duke's engineering school. This fall, he begins working at the intellectual-property law firm Pennie & Edmonds in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at saw@acpub.duke.edu.

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