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President John Hennessy to Class of 2013: Make the most of your Stanford voyage

At the 119th Opening Convocation Ceremony, President John Hennessy urged incoming students to emulate the intellectual curiosity of Charles Darwin, whose pioneering work,  On the Origin of Species, was published 150 years ago.

L.A. Cicero President John Hennessy

President John Hennessy speaks at the convocation ceremony.

Drawing inspiration from his summer reading – a biography of Charles Darwin – President John Hennessy urged incoming students to emulate the scientist's perseverance and intellectual curiosity during their time at Stanford.

"This summer, in preparation for my first trip to the Galapagos Islands, I read the first volume of Janet Browne's biography of Charles Darwin, entitled Voyaging," Hennessy said Tuesday, addressing an audience of incoming students and their families and friends at Stanford's 119th Opening Convocation.

"What I found new and interesting in this biography was how Darwin's experience and education had prepared him, not only for his journey as the naturalist on the Beagle, but also subsequently as he developed the ideas that would lead up to his landmark publication," he said, referring to On the Origin of Species.

Hennessy was one of several speakers who addressed the audience from a stage set up in the inner courtyard of the Main Quad.

The ceremony, which inaugurates the academic year, was the official welcome to the 1,696 freshmen who make up the Class of 2013, and the 23 transfer students who will join the classes of 2011 and 2012.

Hennessy said he couldn’t pass up the chance to talk about Darwin’s life and lifelong intellectual curiosity in 2009, the year that marks the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his landmark work, On the Origin of Species.

Like Darwin, who studied at Cambridge University in England, students at Stanford will have access to outstanding teachers and distinguished scholars, Hennessy said.

He urged incoming students to "use every opportunity" to discover why Stanford faculty members are passionate about their scholarly pursuits. 

"During his student years, Darwin met faculty members who not only taught him important new subjects, but also served as mentors during his early years and as scholarly colleagues and advisers during the later decades when he was working on his theories," Hennessy said. 

"Darwin spent many days and evenings during his time as a student in the company of [Botany] Professor John Henslow," he continued. "Henslow introduced him to many other scientists, and later recommended Darwin for the position on the Beagle [the British Navy survey ship]. Those encounters generated a passion for scientific inquiry and debate, as well as developed Darwin’s knowledge in biology and geology, both of which he put to good use." 

Hennessy also encouraged the students to experiment and take intellectual risks, as Darwin did when he stepped aboard the Beagle at age 22.

"Going on the Beagle was a huge risk for Darwin," he said. "He went, not as the appointed naturalist, but as an educated companion for Captain FitzRoy. He earned the position of naturalist with his superior skills and dedication." 

Hennessy urged students to take courses in disciplines that are new to them.

"Should you occasionally not succeed, do not become disillusioned," he said. "Use it as an opportunity to learn how to overcome adversity. The only people I know who succeed at everything they undertake are those who have been timid in setting their goals." 

Again, Hennessy drew parallels to Darwin’s life.

"Darwin also faced adversities; for example, he never overcame being seasick," Hennessy said. "He spent hours below deck in his hammock. In fact, he seriously contemplated jumping ship and leaving the Beagle early on in his voyage while he was off the coast of Spain. But he persevered, and driven by the desire to explore and be on solid ground, Darwin traversed thousands of miles in South America exploring the fauna and the geology of Argentina and Patagonia. His observations of marine fossils thousands of feet above sea level helped solidify [Geologist] Charles Lyell’s theories about the changing landscape and the effects of geological forces." 

Hennessy added that the education the incoming students would receive at Stanford would be a foundation for their entire lives, not just their first jobs. 

Speaking to parents in the audience, Hennessy promised to provide their children with a variety of possibilities for growing and learning during the next few years. 

"But it is your children, as individuals, who will choose what excites them, what generates intellectual passion and what engages their very able minds," he said. 

"I hope that you will support their choices, and if their interests should change, keep in mind that Cambridge was not Darwin’s first college experience. He was a transfer student to Cambridge. He started at Edinburgh studying medicine, like his father and grandfather. But anatomy bored him and he couldn’t stand dissection. Not a very good beginning for a medical career. Much to the consternation of his father he left medicine and Edinburgh. Although medicine was a rewarding career for his father and grandfather, it was the wrong fit for Charles Darwin." 

Hennessy told the students to envision Darwin standing on the deck of the Beagle, contemplating the next five years of learning and discovery. 

"That voyage went far beyond his imagination, not just because of the lands the Beagle visited but also because Darwin was committed to making the most of the trip," he said. "That trip transformed him. I hope you will be similarly committed to the journey you are about to begin, that your time here transforms your life just as it has transformed the lives of thousands of alumni before you." 

A student’s perspective on freshman year 

Sophomore Jenna Nicholas told the audience that at this same time last year she felt completely overwhelmed by all of the possibilities that lay ahead of her. Still, she set some challenges for herself, and was amazed at how many opportunities arose. 

"I wanted to do a graduate class in global entrepreneurial marketing," she said. "I did. I wanted to have lunch with a philanthro-capitalist who spoke at Stanford and supports stem cell research and clean energy. I did and was even offered an internship. I wanted to dress up as a banana. I did. I am not alone. Some of my friends have done things such as row in the Olympics, help AIDS victims in Africa and build solar cars and rockets." 

Nicholas, who is a member of the Baha’i Faith, said she has always been passionate about public service. Last year, she helped create a community service group of Stanford students who run moral education classes at local middle schools. 

She also worked with other students on a web-based project called the U-Movement, which is dedicated to helping the United Nations achieve its goals of eradicating poverty and improving healthcare and education by 2015. Last summer, she took part in a microfinance education project in Beijing initiated by Stanford. 

"For those of you who have not yet found your passion, somewhere along the way you will," she said. "Just remember to keep your eyes open, remain positive, pace yourself and be prepared to step beyond your comfort zone." 

The Class of 2013 

Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid, described convocation  –  when he could look out at the audience and see the "fruition of crafting this beautiful class" –  as the most exciting moment  of his year.

He said the Class of 2013 was 51 percent male and 49 percent female; that nearly 8 percent of incoming freshmen are international students from 44 countries, along with another 3 percent who are U.S. citizens and permanent residents who studied at high schools outside the United States; and that 15 percent will be the first in their families to attend college.

"You are scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs, composers and artists, athletes and mathematicians, debaters, volunteers and writers, among hundreds of other talents and accomplishments," Shaw said. "Over 100 of you have been evaluated by our faculty as exceptionally talented in the Arts, Drama and Music. You have excelled, often to the professional and Olympic caliber levels, in the Arts and Athletics." 

"You  were finalists of Intel competitions and have won gold and silver medals in the International Academic Olympiads," he continued. "Your recommenders talk about you as 'alarmingly talented' and 'scary smart.' And the one pursuit that you all share, amongst all of your outstanding talents and accomplishments, is profound intellectual inquiry. You have immersed yourself in efforts to realize personal excellence, in all its forms. Learning and living for you has been a joy rather than a task."  

John Bravman, vice provost for undergraduate education, said Stanford had a question for incoming students: Who are you becoming? 

"Such is our faith in you that we believe you are ready to answer this question, in word, and often more importantly, in deed—but only over time," Bravman said. "Our faith involves, at its very core, our own belief that you have the fierce determination to challenge yourself in new and deeper ways; to confront life and all of its possibilities and struggles with new perspectives; and to pursue thoughtfully, deeply, and thoroughly, the life of the mind." 

But first, it was time to learn the words and melody of Hail Stanford, Hail. Student soloists Arunima Kohli and Eric Tuan performed the song, whose words were written on the Convocation programs. They invited the audience to join in on the second rendition. After hearing trained singers perform the difficult melody, the audience laughed at the request, but gamely joined in for the second round.