Journalist Richard Engel tells Stanford grads to experience the world

Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, told Stanford's 2015 graduates that taking chances can make a meaningful difference in the future of humanity.

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Kurt Hickman and Stanford Video

Highlights of the Commencement ceremony.

Stanford Commencement Weekend 2015

Every college graduate has the opportunity to shape history by following their sense of adventure, journalist Richard Engel told Stanford’s Class of 2015.

Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, spoke at Stanford’s 124th Commencement on Sunday, June 14, at Stanford Stadium.

He said that urbanization, climate and communication technology are issues of the utmost importance for this generation and the next. “They are already coming together to make a very explosive cocktail,” he said.

Engel graduated from Stanford in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in international relations. He began his career as a foreign correspondent in Egypt, and started work with NBC in 2008.

When he first went to Egypt, “I had no job lined up, no contacts, I spoke no Arabic and I had about $2,000 in my pocket,” he said. “I loved that I was trying to figure it out on my own.”

Since then, Engel has covered wars for broadcast TV, and most recently, reported on ISIS, the Syrian civil war and the earthquake in Nepal.

He advised the newly minted graduates to dream big and bold.

“Put yourself in situations where you don’t know what’s going on around you and let your brain sort it out. That’s the fun part: the constant learning, the new sensations, the new place and the new risks,” he said.

College classes are over, he said, and now is finally the time to explore an ever-changing world.  “Seek out all that is beautiful and inspiring and romantic.”

Of course, be careful, he told them. “Don’t be naïve, but if you don’t take risks and go outside your comfort zone, you won’t continue to expand your minds.”

Engel himself has been kidnapped, shot at, deported and arrested. His biggest gamble, he said, was to take an Iraqi visa to be a “human shield” just as the Iraq war began in 2002. He had no intention of being a human shield, but it was the only way he could get into Iraq.

“I took $20,000 in cash, strapped it to my ankle, went to Baghdad and began my short career as a human shield. It was very short. I immediately went into hiding and didn’t show up for my human-shield responsibilities. I waited for the war to begin, moving from hotel room to hotel room,” he said.

‘War exposes everything’

The journalist said he doesn’t cover war and conflict because he enjoys it – but rather, because they teach him something about humanity, from the highs of courage to the lows of cowardice.

Go to the web site to view the video.

Kurt Hickman

Commencement begins with Wacky Walk.

“I hate the violence, but I go because war is revealing. Like scientists smash atoms together to understand their components and maybe even the universe, war exposes everything.”

By reporting on this “crucible,” as he put it, maybe people can better understand humanity and improve the world. Much depends on how we pursue our adventures, he said.

For example, on the confluence of trends of urbanization, climate and technology, Engel referenced Cairo. About 18 million mostly poor people live there amid crumbling infrastructure – but with smartphones, and as a result, vast communication opportunities.

What happens, he said, when Cairo grows to 25 or 30 million and the air is even more polluted and communications are even more advanced? “Will it be more or less stable?” he said.

Engel, in urging the students not to simply chase money and comfort, said, “The unknown awaits and you all are in the best position of anyone in the world to experience it.”

He added, “Don’t go get desk jobs.” In other words, don’t let a computer screen obscure the amazing world beyond it.

Senior class presidents Connor Kelley, Malika Mehrotra, Eric Iwashita and Natalya Thakur said earlier in the week that Engel has “devoted his life and career to the pursuit of social justice through journalism, a commitment that demonstrates a high level of risk-taking in order to pursue his passion.”

In 2011, Engel was honored with the Daniel Pearl Award for courage and integrity in journalism, in memory of Wall Street Journal reporter and Stanford alumnus Daniel Pearl, ’85, who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.

In his remarks to the students, Stanford President John Hennessy spoke of the philanthropic legacy of Peter Bing, ’55, and his wife, Helen, on campus. Both have led the way, he said, on so many projects that touch the lives of students daily, from the Bing Concert Hall to the Bing Wing of the Green Library, and more.

Hennessy, who announced earlier in the week that he plans to step down as president in the summer of 2016, talked about the special role that universities play in the “ancient and timeless questions facing humanity.”

And yet the future is just as important in striving toward a balance of old and new, he added. Institutions like Stanford should be bold as they contemplate the road ahead for society.

“We remain mindful of the need to reinvent and move forward,” Hennessy said.

Of Engel, Hennessy noted the journalist’s determination and perseverance. Engel, who is dyslexic, overcame academic challenges early on to become a renowned reporter.

‘Very surreal’

On Sunday, the university conferred 1,704 bachelor’s degrees, 2,338 master’s degrees and 984 doctoral degrees. Commencement began with the “Wacky Walk,” Stanford’s nontraditional processional into the stadium.

In Stanford’s undergraduate Class of 2015, 290 seniors graduated with departmental honors, 281 graduated with distinction, 64 had more than one major, 29 had dual bachelor’s degrees, 130 had both a bachelor’s and master’s degree and 350 earned minors.

On the international front, 117 foreign undergraduates hailed from 40 countries and 1,044 graduate students were from 82 countries.

Donna Saadati-Soto, an economics major from Los Angeles graduating with honors and the first from her family to attend college, said the reality of graduation has not yet set in.

“My guess is next week when I’m laying on the couch it will hit me. But right now, it is very surreal,” she said. Her next chapter awaiting is an internship in the White House’s domestic policy unit.

“Stanford taught me how to think critically about everything,” she noted.

For Barbara Lave, whose daughter Carly Lave is graduating with a major in American studies, being a parent of a Stanford student made her “incredibly proud.”

Stanford, said the Portland resident, gave her daughter the opportunity to fully grow. “She became the person she was meant to be,” said Lave.

A webcast of the Commencement ceremony will be available by 6 p.m. Sunday.