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Baccalaureate speaker Valerie Kaur

Valarie Kaur, an alumna who is an award-winning filmmaker, civil rights advocate and interfaith organizer, gives the Baccalaureate address in the Main Quad. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford's Baccalaureate speaker tells Class of 2013 to enter the whirlwind of life with their whole heart

When facing the dangers of a courageous life, have faith, alumna Valarie Kaur told the graduates at Baccalaureate, a multi-faith celebration of thanksgiving and inspiration. "Faith in God or faith in goodness, faith that love can conquer death and darkness and despair, faith in yourself, faith in each other."

Video by Kurt Hickman

Stanford's 2013 Baccalaureate Ceremony in the Main Quad.

Speaking to the Class of 2013, alumna Valarie Kaur said graduates don't need to be superhuman, super-smart, super fuzzy or super techie to stand up for what they believe in, but need only to keep alive the desire to do good, and to keep their faith when the world becomes a whirlwind.

"If you think of your life as a great journey, filled with splendors and dangers and chances to make the world a better place – and you hold fast to the friends you have made here – then there will be only one thing left to do when a whirlwind comes calling," Kaur said. "Enter it with your whole heart."

Kaur told the audience she entered the whirlwind as a 20-year-old Stanford junior. She was a religious studies major with no filmmaking experience who grabbed a camera and left campus to crisscross the country, filming hundreds of stories of hate crimes committed after 9/11 against "people who looked like us – Sikh, Muslim and Arab Americans, chased, beaten, gunned down."

A man she knew as an uncle was killed in a hate crime in Arizona. His murder "barely made the evening news," she said.

Speaking Saturday morning in the Main Quad at Baccalaureate, a festive celebration of thanksgiving and inspiration, Kaur said it was her maternal grandfather who urged her to act.

"My grandfather was the most fearless man I knew," she said. "He was a soldier in World War II, so when he taught me a Sikh prayer – Tati vao na lagi, par brahm sharnai. The hot winds cannot touch me, I am sheltered by the Divine – I took it as the secret to his fearlessness. With his prayer on my heart, I wrote my professor, Linda Hess, with my idea, and she said, 'You're in a position to enter this unique moment in history … and catch the life of it. It's like entering the whirlwind.'"

But Kaur also faced down danger. She was arrested while filming anti-war protesters in New York City, injured by a police officer who badly twisted her arm, and detained in a makeshift detention center known as "Guantanamo on the Hudson." She later finished that film, Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath, supported by longtime Stanford friends who reached out to care for her.

"And it was Dean Tommy Lee Woon who taught me the greatest lesson that changed my life," Kaur said. "He said: If we drive ourselves into the ground, if we pretend that we are perfect, if we hide our pain and imperfection, then we are embodying the very dysfunction and neglect we seek to heal out in the world. The way we make change is just as important as the change we make.'"

L.A. CiceroJonathan York speaking at Baccalaureate

Jonathan York offers the student reflection during Baccalaureate.

Kaur, who grew up in Clovis, Calif., is an award-winning filmmaker, civil rights advocate and interfaith organizer. She was the featured speaker at the hour-long ceremony, which is led by students under the auspices of the Office for Religious Life. Ten years ago, as a graduating senior, she gave the student reflection at Baccalaureate. After graduation from Stanford she earned a master's degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School and a law degree from Yale.

She is the founding director of Groundswell, a nonprofit initiative at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City that mobilizes people of faith in social action. Currently a fellow at Yale Law School, Kaur is the founding director of the Yale Visual Law Project, where she makes documentary films and trains students in the art of visual advocacy.

"Whatever you do, wherever you go after tomorrow, whether it's in public service or academia, or a corporate office or an NGO or an urban farm, you will find that courage is dangerous business," Kaur said.

"You may be broken and bleeding. You may find yourself awake at night with a ghost in your throat. You may find your arm twisted, your heart broken in two. But the hot winds cannot touch you if you have faith – faith in God or faith in goodness, faith that love can conquer death and darkness and despair, faith in yourself, faith in each other."

The Baccalaureate celebration opened with a solemn Buddhist call to prayer performed on a singing bowl and ended with a dramatic drumming blessing, Tatsumaki (Whirlwind), performed by Stanford Taiko.

In between there was an invocation, A Prayer of the Ojibway Nation, which the audience, primarily soon-to-be graduates and their families, recited. The Baccalaureate readings were Be a Gardener, by Julian of Norwich, and Courage and Vision, by Mohandas Gandhi.

Stanford Talisman, a student a cappella group, performed two songs, Wanting Memories, a song of the African Diaspora, and One by One, a song sung in Xhosa that was inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement and expresses solidarity in the struggle against oppression.

Student reflection

Jonathan York, who offered the student reflection, described himself as the "unlikely combination" of an Iranian mother whose family fled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution and settled in Akron, Ohio, and an Iranian father, the son of a great rabbi, who changed his name to York – from Yadegaran – when he arrived in America in 1970.

York, whose family lives in Los Angeles, Tel Aviv and Tehran, said he is Jewish, Iranian, American and Israeli.

"I didn't know just how much of a contradiction I was growing up, surrounded by those who looked and sounded like me," said York, a graduating senior who majored in international relations and minored in human biology. "It never seemed a conflict to celebrate Norouz and Passover within days of each other."

Until he arrived at Stanford, that is.

"Until I went to Shabbat services at Hillel and heard Ashkenazi melodies foreign to my Sephardic ears," he said. "Until I studied abroad in Madrid and had to answer time and again the same follow-up question, 'But where are you really from?' Until I participated in Stanford in Washington and the Farsi and Hebrew skills I learned at home became strategic assets."

Yet through it all, Stanford remained the one place where, for all his contradictions, he was still just "Jonathan," York said.

At Stanford, York said, students shared their contradictions – and with them, their fears and histories – in the hope of finding understanding and support.

"Today we look around, at our friends and colleagues, our parents and professors," he said. "We look around and see in them all those who made our unlikely contradictions possible and their synergies beautiful."

York urged the graduates to savor the moment.

"And with the strength of our common experience, let us walk forward together, tested but not weary, to a future where from our many contradictions, we may derive but inspiration and light."