Prepared remarks of President John Hennessy at Opening Convocation Ceremony on Sept. 15, 2015

Parents, transfer students and members of the Class of 2019, good afternoon and welcome to Stanford University.

This fall, we begin a celebration of Stanford’s 125th year. There will be events throughout the coming year marking this milestone in the university’s history, but today we celebrate you – the arrival of 1,740 new students and the 125th class to enter the university. Congratulations. When Stanford first opened its doors in 1891, the enrolled student body included freshmen as well as students from other colleges and universities, as it does today.

For the past 15 years I have welcomed a new class to Stanford, and for many of those years, I used my summer reading about historical figures as a framework to offer thoughts about the Stanford experience. Since this is my last opportunity to address an incoming class, I have chosen insights from nine of those individuals – Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Darwin, Nelson Mandela, George Washington, Peter the Great, Sara Josephine Baker, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and Steve Jobs – to stimulate your thinking about your time here.

Although there have been many changes since the first class entered Stanford, the questions confronting young people beginning their education are timeless. “How do I find my passion?” “What am I really good at?” “How can I make the most of my time here?” And, the perennial, “Has anyone seen my keys?” I can, however, offer a few suggestions based on my 38 years as a member of this university.

When I welcomed the Class of 2008, I talked about Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt started his college journey with a handicap: Stanford had not yet been founded, so he settled for Harvard.

But when he arrived at college, he had two characteristics we value most in students: curiosity and a passion for learning. Indeed, his entire life was an intellectual journey, just as we hope yours will be.

As a young man, Roosevelt pursued many interests, and that broad knowledge came in handy, because he certainly could not have predicted what was ahead. As a young state assemblyman, he supported a political reformer for president, which cost him his own position. He was unsuccessful as a rancher in the Dakotas and as candidate for the mayor of New York, and he was almost fired as assistant secretary of the Navy. Despite those setbacks, at the age of 40 he became one of New York’s youngest governors. When the vice president died during President McKinley’s re-election campaign, Roosevelt became a reluctant vice presidential candidate. After McKinley’s assassination, the unlikely vice president became president. Like Roosevelt, you must prepare yourself. Opportunities rarely come on your schedule.

Remember that, like Roosevelt, your undergraduate education is more than a ticket to your first job. It is an opportunity to develop skills as a lifelong learner. It is the foundation for your entire life.

In 2009, Charles Darwin was my subject. All of us know Darwin as a great scientist and the primary discoverer of evolution. But after starting as a medical student at Edinburgh, he dropped out because he disliked dissection. He transferred to Cambridge and began studying for the ministry. Alas, he hated that as well. Then he met Professor John Henslow, who encouraged his interest in science. Henslow introduced him to many other scientists and later recommended Darwin for his transformative trip on the Beagle.

I hope you will learn from Darwin’s experience. Alumni have told us that getting to know a faculty member was one of the most rewarding aspects of their Stanford experience. Our faculty have a passion for learning and a desire to share their knowledge. Get to know them outside of the classroom as well. While I love presenting 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. Who knows where you will find your John Henslow.

Nelson Mandela inspired me in 2010. A tale of resilience, determination and justice, his life story also has remarkable lessons about human relations. For example, as Mandela counseled fellow activists in prison, he came to know a number of white jail keepers. They became sympathetic to the cause and saw the injustice in both apartheid and imprisonment of the activists. Mandela wrote:

“This is precisely why the National Party was violently opposed to all forms of integration. … Familiarity … would not breed contempt, but understanding, and even, eventually, harmony.”

Over the next few years, you will get to know students whose backgrounds, cultures, or beliefs are different from yours. You may find that your values – and your prejudices – are challenged. I hope you will discover a new understanding and appreciation for the pluralistic society in which we live and find constructive ways to contribute. The opportunity to learn from your fellow students is an important part of a Stanford education. Appreciating differences, ensuring equality and valuing others are characteristics this country needs.

Today you join a university community bound by its commitment to high ideals and to respect for individuals and their ideas. Some years ago, when I spoke to students about George Washington, I cited his leadership of the Continental Army and how he embraced a new set of values. He treated the enlisted men as peers, addressing them as “Gentlemen.” At a time when class structure was reinforced in European armies, Washington believed in equality and meritocracy, promoting men who proved their worth through accomplishment rather than family connections.

At Stanford, merit is the basis for recognition. And this is a community dedicated to the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and understanding.

These principles are part of the university’s history, established:

  • By Jane and Leland Stanford, who – after their only son’s death at the age of 15 – founded this university to benefit other people’s children and, as it says in the Founding Grant, “to exercise an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization”;
  • By Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, who chose the motto “The Wind of Freedom Blows” to remind us of the importance and privilege of free and open inquiry;
  • And by Stanford’s first faculty and students, who in 1896 created the Fundamental Standard, which emphasizes personal integrity and respect for every member of the scholarly community – a standard still in effect more than 100 years later.

You are growing up in a time of rapid globalization, and it is important to learn from others who have been open to new ideas from elsewhere. Consider Peter the Great: He transformed Russia from a backward, introverted, rural and medieval country to a more modern urban participant on the world stage. One of the events that most shaped Peter’s life was the so-called “Great Embassy” – his yearlong tour of Europe, traveling largely incognito, meeting people and observing how different societies lived. As a result, he foresaw the importance of creating both a navy and a merchant fleet. Russia had rarely ventured on the open seas and lacked the skills needed to build ocean-going vessels. So, Peter – the Tsar of all Russia – spent time in Holland, learning how to construct a ship, engaging in manual labor with axes, chisels and hammers. These were skills he later needed to construct Russia’s first large-scale boatyard.

Today, an international perspective is more important than ever. The Bing Overseas Studies Program provides opportunities for immersive educational experiences in many countries outside the United States. It is something I hope every student considers.

There are also opportunities for experiential learning through internships at Stanford in Washington and Stanford in New York, as well as around campus and overseas. A variety of courses from the arts to engineering also provide opportunities to learn by doing.

Many of our students have an interest in public service. Dr. Josephine Baker, the subject of my address last year, lived a remarkable life of public service. How did Baker become committed to public service? As a young girl, she did not dream of being a doctor; she hoped to attend Vassar College and major in the liberal arts. But when she was 16, both her father and her older brother died of typhoid. She decided to pursue a career in medicine that could financially support her. While in medical school she learned of the appalling infant mortality rates and focused her life on improving children’s health. Later, she started the first children’s public health programs in New York City and is credited with saving the lives of approximately 80,000 children.

For those of you interested in service, the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford offers extensive opportunities for service-learning locally, nationally and internationally. Alumni have told us their undergraduate service experiences were transformative, and this year, Stanford is launching Cardinal Service. Cardinal Service includes both Cardinal Courses, which apply classroom learning to real-world social problems, and Cardinal Quarters, which are full-time immersive service experiences. I encourage you to consider making service-learning part of your Stanford experience.

In 2011, I focused on Benjamin Franklin and the joys of learning, discovery and invention. Franklin was a writer, entrepreneur, diplomat and scientist, and his list of inventions is amazing. From the Franklin stove to the glass harmonica, bifocals to the lighting rod, his inventions were based on his research on electricity, sound and light. Although he founded both a university and one of the country’s great learned societies, he did not have a formal education.

Fortunately, you have chosen to attend a university that excels in teaching and research. At Stanford, you can take courses that explore the frontiers of fields, and you can contribute to that process of discovery. Taking part in the creation of new knowledge is an immensely rewarding and life-altering experience.

Personal growth involves not only risking failure, but also overcoming adversity. Abraham Lincoln failed to unseat Stephen Douglas in one of the most hotly contested Senate elections in this country’s history. It was not, however, a wasted effort. Douglas was known for his debating skills, and through those debates, Lincoln honed his rhetorical skills, and he strengthened his arguments against slavery. Those experiences set the stage for his later presidential campaign.

Lincoln, Roosevelt, Washington, Darwin, Franklin, Baker, Mandela and Peter the Great – all experienced failure, but we know them today because they learned from and overcame adversity.

So, experiment and take intellectual risks. Challenge yourself with courses in disciplines that are new to you. And should you not succeed, do not become disillusioned. The only people I know who succeed at everything they undertake are those who are timid in setting their goals. Instead, learn from your setbacks.

Several years ago, I spoke about Steve Jobs and how he overcame several failures but never lost his passion for changing the world. In his 2005 Commencement speech here at Stanford, Steve said,

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

He continued,

“Since then …, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

He was determined to live a life he felt passionate about. Facing a cancer diagnosis simply reinforced his determination. As he told our graduates:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. … Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. … Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

So, today, our request is simple: We ask that you become an enthusiastic member of this academic community. We ask you to have the determination and conviction to make these years the springboard to a life lived with passion and commitment.

Find something you love doing, just as Jordan [Shapiro, student speaker] did. You will be better at it and the challenges that await you later in life will be easier. Ask your parents for guidance, but remember it is your passion you need to discover; your parents already have theirs!

I hope that your time here transforms your lives, just as it has transformed the lives of so many alumni. And I hope it will provide a foundation for you to make your contributions to the world and to the generations who follow.

To all our new students and their families: Welcome to the Stanford community, and thank you for joining us today.