Prepared remarks of President John Hennessy at Opening Convocation Ceremony on Sept. 17, 2013
Thank you, Jessica [Anderson], for that wonderful and inspiring speech. Parents, transfer students, and members of the Class of 2017, good afternoon and welcome to Stanford University. Today, we celebrate the arrival of 1,679 new freshmen and 28 transfer students.
Dean Shaw spoke about the extraordinary talents of this class and why, after an intensive review process, we selected each of you, individually, to be Stanford undergraduates.
In thinking about the start of a new school year, I have often turned to books that I have read over the past year for inspiration. This summer, I was traveling to St. Petersburg for the first time, so I decided to embark on the journey with Robert Massie's Peter the Great: His Life and World. At 928 pages (including notes and index), I thought reading the book would be a journey, and it was – but, I am happy to say, a pleasurable one!
I read biographies a lot, and I read them primarily to gain insights about leadership and living an impactful life. So, I started Massie's book with a simple question: What made Peter the Great great? To start, neither his tendency toward heavy drinking nor his tendency toward violence was conducive to his goal of modernizing Russia, which – when he was crowned in 1682 – was more medieval than modern. Peter's military conquests, however, particularly over Sweden, were influential and ensured that the city he founded, St. Petersburg, would be part of Russia permanently. But, his truly great accomplishment was transforming medieval Russia into a modern, scientific, European-oriented country.
How did Peter, who did not have the benefit of the sort of education given to European leaders at the time, prepare himself for his role?
When Peter – at the age of 17 – terminated the regency of his mother, he was urged by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to ban all foreigners from the country, as well as their customs and other external influences. Peter did the opposite: He imported European leaders and chose to learn from them. He did not yet know where he would take Russia, but he knew he needed to know more about the modern world to the west.
I hope that – as you prepared for this day – you also took some time to contemplate what you are searching for in your undergraduate education. I don't mean to suggest that you need have a well-defined life plan that takes you from this day to the presidency of the United States or the IPO of the next Google. If you do, that's great, but you should be open to changing it and welcome new influences, just as Peter did.
Either way, your undergraduate education should prepare you, first and foremost, to be a "cultured and useful citizen." This was one of the goals that Leland and Jane Stanford set for the university when they established it.
How can you maximize the benefits you will gain from your time at Stanford? I have several suggestions, based on my 36 years as a member of the Stanford community. First, get to know a faculty member; our professors have a passion for learning and a desire to share their knowledge with others. Alumni have told us that getting to know a faculty member personally was one of the most rewarding aspects of their Stanford experience. Second, explore new directions and areas that interest you and broaden your education.
One of the events that most shaped Peter's life was a yearlong tour of Europe that became known as the "Great Embassy." During that tour, Peter traveled, largely incognito, meeting people and observing how different societies lived.
Just as Peter learned by exploring different cultures, I encourage you to explore new subjects and interests through our Introductory Seminars program. Each seminar is led by a Stanford faculty member and enrolls no more than 16 students. This year there will be Introductory Seminars on a wide variety of topics – from Mark Twain to nanotechnology, from the Roman Empire to horse medicine, from the art of living to the Rwandan genocide, and from modern energy systems to inequality in America. These small group seminars are a wonderful opportunity to get to know a faculty member and a new subject. It is the kind of opportunity that Peter the Great would have relished.
I encourage you to get to know the faculty outside of the classroom as well – use every opportunity to discover why they are passionate about their scholarly pursuits. While I love giving an exciting lecture to a packed classroom, my greatest enjoyment comes when a student visits my office to talk about research, ask career advice, or seek help on a difficult topic.
My third suggestion is to get to know your fellow students – they are one of the most incredible assets you have for learning and growing as a person. Over the next few years, you will meet many students whose experience, culture, or beliefs are different from yours. You may find that your values and beliefs are challenged. I hope that you will discover a new understanding and appreciation of our pluralistic society and develop your skills in interacting with people quite different from you. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to learn from a group of very talented and capable people: your fellow students!
Lastly, I would remind you that Stanford is not only a great educational institution; it is also a great research university. I encourage you to take advantage of that. Take courses and attend seminars that explore the frontiers of fields where new knowledge and understanding are being created. For me, participating in research as an undergraduate led me from my major in electrical engineering to my graduate major in computer science, and it ignited a passion for being on the leading edge of discovery. This passion sustained me through my PhD and continues to excite me after 36 years as a Stanford faculty member. Being at the forefront of discovery and taking part in the creation of new knowledge is an immensely rewarding and life-altering experience.
Peter the Great was also a big believer in experiential learning. He foresaw the importance of creating both a navy and a merchant fleet in a country that had rarely ventured on the open seas. But he knew that Russia lacked the skills needed to build ocean-going vessels. So he spent several months in Holland, learning how to construct a ship, by building one. There, the Tsar of Russia engaged in manual labor, learning to use axes, chisels, and hammers. And it was there that he learned the skills he later needed to oversee the construction of Russia's first large-scale boatyard.
Experiential learning is an avenue for growth, and at Stanford, you can have such experiential learning opportunities through community service at the Haas Center, through the Bing Overseas Studies Program, through undergraduate research, or through a variety of courses – from the arts to engineering – that teach and develop creative opportunities. The important thing is to be open to such possibilities.
Peter the Great faced a number of challenges in his life: a mother who was reluctant to surrender her authority as regent; church officials who opposed liberalization; and King Charles XII of Sweden – the greatest military leader of the time – who crushed the Russian army in their initial encounter.
During your time at Stanford, you also will face new hurdles and challenges. You will not always be the most talented person in every class, and you will likely encounter subjects that you find truly difficult. I urge you not to shrink from these hurdles, but to experiment and take intellectual risks. Challenge yourself with courses in disciplines that are new to you. And should you occasionally not succeed, do not become disillusioned – just be sure to learn from your mistakes.
As you begin your time at Stanford and plan your time here, I would urge you to remember that your undergraduate education is a foundation for life. It is much more than your ticket to your first job. Like Peter's Great Embassy, it is a once-in-a-lifetime journey. It is an opportunity to develop the skills and passion for being a lifelong learner in areas related to and outside of your future career.
So, our request is simple: We ask that you become an enthusiastic member of this academic community. We ask you to take advantage of this opportunity – to have the determination and conviction to make these next years with us the springboard to a life lived with passion and commitment.
Most importantly, don't settle! Find something you love doing – you will be better at it and the challenges that await you later in life will be easier. Ask your parents for their insights and guidance, but remember it is your passion you need to discover; your parents already have theirs!
I welcome all our new students and their parents to the Stanford family. Students, I hope your time here transforms your lives, just as it has transformed the lives of so many alumni. And, finally, I hope your time here will help to provide a foundation on which you will make your contributions to a better future for yourselves and the generations that will follow.
Welcome to the Farm and welcome to the Stanford community.