Cameras flashed across Wallace Wade Stadium as media entrepreneur and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey urged graduates at Duke's 157th commencement to "trust your gut to help you stand proudly in your own shoes while you help others stand in theirs."
In her speech, Winfrey shared stories about interviewing celebrities as diverse as Hugh Jackman and Nelson Mandela, as well as ordinary people who, she said, often inspired her even more. She returned repeatedly to her theme that "one of the best ways to enhance your own life is to enhance somebody else's," adding, "you really haven't completed that circle of success unless you have helped someone else to move forward."
Duke President Richard H. Brodhead awarded Winfrey an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. He also conferred honorary degrees on economist-educator Susan Athey '91, known for her research into government-sponsored auctions; Nobel Prize-winning geneticists Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein, who laid the groundwork for the development of cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins; higher-education leader James Moeser, former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Nobel chemist Mario Molina, whose research sounded the alarm about the dangers of chlorofluorocarbon gases, or CFCs, to the Earth's ozone layer; business executive Indra Nooyi, chair and CEO of PepsiCo; and pianist Murray Perahia, an award-winning soloist known for his performances of Bach.
Winfrey was preceded by student speaker Robert Paul Jones '02, M.D. '09, who teased her about her celebrity. Pretending to be interrupted by a cell-phone call as he began his remarks, Jones said, "Ms. Winfrey, apparently your limousine is double-parked in front of the chapel. Duke Parking wanted me to let you know they won't release your honorary degree until you pay your parking fine."
Jones went on to describe Duke as a place where students can learn from inevitable failures and grow as scholars and people. "We all have past embarrassment, but we ultimately recover," he said. "I think there is empowerment in acknowledging one's imperfection… In my time at Duke, I've learned that my failures of action do not equate to my failure as a person."
The ceremony proceeded more quickly than in previous years, as schools awarded all degrees at once rather than in program groups. More than 4,400 degrees were conferred.