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Duke student under scrutiny for graduation speech similar to Harvard student’s remarks

Priya Parkash spoke at Duke's commencement ceremony on May 8. Some passages of Parkash's speech bear a striking resemblance to a 2014 Harvard University commencement speech.Rebecca Schneid for The Duke Chronicle

A recent Duke University graduate is facing scrutiny over her commencement address that bore striking similarities to remarks that a graduating Harvard senior made to her class in 2014.

The May 8 speech from Duke senior Priya Parkash, who completed a bachelor’s degree in statistical science and economics, described the campus as a metaphorical nation unto itself.

Some themes and turns of phrase in the speech closely mirrored those used by then-graduating senior Sarah Abushaar in 2014, when she described Harvard in much the same way.

The similarities were previously reported by the Harvard Crimson and the Duke Chronicle, the schools’ respective independent student newspapers.

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In a statement Thursday, Parkash said she was “embarrassed” by the controversy her speech had caused.

“When I was asked to give the commencement speech, I was thrilled by such an honor and I sought advice from respected friends and family about topics I might address,” Parkash said in the statement. “I was embarrassed and confused to find out too late that some of the suggested passages were taken from a recent commencement speech at another university. I take full responsibility for this oversight and I regret if this incident has in any way distracted from the accomplishments of the Duke Class of 2022.”

In one example, both students joked about being decked out in college gear at US airports to avoid excessive screening from security personnel overly suspicious of travelers from the Middle East. Parkash is from Pakistan, and Abushaar is a Syrian-American who was raised in Kuwait.

“Before departing every semester, I would be sure to raid the Duke store, like our own enthusiastic Duke moms and dads sitting here today,” Parkash said in her May speech. “And showed up to the airport ... [wearing a] Duke cap, Duke sweatshirt, Duke sweatpants, Duke sunglasses, Duke slides, and even Duke underwear. As soon as immigration officers saw that I bled blue [they said] ‘Oh, you’re a Duke national. National security threat? No, not you. Come on in.’”

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Eight years earlier, Abushaar had told the Harvard crowd that when she went to the airport, “I made sure I dressed like our overly proud Harvard dads with Harvard hat, Harvard shirt, Harvard shorts, and Harvard underwear. And as soon as they saw I was a citizen of Harvard, [they said] ‘Oh, you go to Harvard. Surely you must not be a national security threat. Welcome to America.”

Another passage similar in both speeches was a humorous riff on the component parts of the two campus “nations” in Cambridge and Durham, N.C.

“We also have an IRS with its surprisingly bubbly fleet of tax collectors — the Duke Alumni Association,” Parkash said in May. “We also have the equivalent of the Federal Reserve — [fund manager] DUMAC, which manages an endowment larger than the GDP of one-third of the countries in the world.”

Abushaar, by comparison, said during her 2014 speech that Harvard has “a tax collection agency, the Harvard Alumni Association, and an endowment larger than more than half the world’s countries’ GDP.”

Michael Schoenfeld, a Duke spokesman, told the Globe via e-mail Friday that the school has “initiated an investigation to understand the facts of the situation and I can’t comment further at this time. Duke University expects all students to abide by their commitment to the Duke Community Standard in their academic and non-academic endeavors.”

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Abushaar told the Crimson in a statement Wednesday that the goal of her 2014 speech “was to inspire young people, and especially young women, from all backgrounds to break barriers in striving for their aims and to have the courage to use their voices to share their stories and serve as forces of good. I hope that this incident was a serious error in judgment and that the student can take this opportunity to learn and grow from it.”

She says on her LinkedIn page that she currently works as a health care investor at the Stanford GSB Impact Fund and previously worked as an investment banking analyst at Goldman Sachs.



Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.