Prepared remarks by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne at Convocation

Thank you, Debnil [Sur], for those warm and encouraging remarks.

Parents and incoming students — welcome to all of you, welcome to Stanford.

I’m really excited to be here to give you your official welcome to the Stanford community and to say a few words about what lies ahead.

I share with you an unusual variety of emotions and feelings — including excitement, awe and trepidation — and while I think this will be the case to some extent for me at the beginning of every academic year, it is especially the case today as this is my very first year as Stanford’s president.

As we enter the new year together, I want to share a few thoughts about some things that will happen while you are at Stanford.

You’re going to embark on an odyssey of learning and self-discovery, as you pursue both academic and extracurricular activities. You’re going to find an area of study to focus on. And you’re going to make lifelong friends.

I’m not here to go through the details of these things — you will hear a great deal about that in the days ahead — but I do want to give you a bit of advice.

Although I don’t know you individually, I do know something about each of you. You chose to come to Stanford, and as Dean Shaw has said, I know that you have already accomplished much in your lives.

Take a minute and look around the Quad at your fellow classmates. Like you – each and every person you see has done something incredible, brings interesting life experiences and perspectives and has fascinating ideas.

You can learn so much just by talking with them and engaging with them. One of the greatest gifts of your time here will be exposure to people from diverse backgrounds, and to people with diverse points of view. As a result, you will be challenged by new ways of looking at the world that may be different than your own – often very different.

Freedom of expression is one of the values we hold highest here, along with the importance of a community where everyone feels included and respected. The fact that we don’t shirk from addressing difficult issues, but that we do so in mutual understanding and respect, provides a powerful opportunity for you to examine humanity from all sides.

Everyone here this afternoon — and the other students and faculty in this incredible community — are what makes Stanford so special. So be excited about meeting everyone and don’t hold back.

In fact, getting the most out of your Stanford experience really comes down to not holding back, to taking chances. It is an important part of your education.

So, I hope you will try new things while you are here. Stanford has an incredible array of courses and small group seminars. The Thinking Matters courses are a good example; they tackle big topics. They will push you to dig deep into a subject and to look at problems from multiple perspectives. This year, you can take Thinking Matters courses on Empathy, or The Rules of War, or Sustainability Challenges and Transitions, or Breaking Codes, Breaking Patterns, just to name a few.

Spend some time wandering our world-class art museums, take a class in art practice or performance, or in an area of literature or anthropology or astronomy completely unfamiliar to you. Join one of hundreds of student clubs.

Just as important, don’t lose sight of the fact that you have come to a great research university. There are opportunities here that are not available at other schools. Undergraduates can engage in research in the museum, the field and the laboratory — and those opportunities include the arts, humanities and social sciences, as well as the sciences and engineering.

The most common regret I hear from people is that they didn’t try enough different things when they were students. And many of the fondest memories people have of their college years, even decades later, are classes or activities that they joined by chance. So, I encourage you to stretch yourself. Sign up for something that intrigues you, something a little beyond your comfort zone.

This is a special time in your lives. As Debnil pointed out, never again will you be somewhere where you can learn about anything you want and have the resources to do it, with experts who are excited to teach you and to show you why they love their subject. Even if you go on to postgraduate education, you won’t have the same opportunity to just try things out, to learn about anything and everything.

So have fun, and explore. You don’t know what you might like. That certainly was true for me. When I started college I was sure I would be a mathematician or physicist, but I got exposed to philosophy and biology and now, thirty years later, I’ve built my career around neuroscience.

You also don’t know what might be helpful to you in the future. There’s a famous tale of Steve Jobs taking a class in calligraphy. He did it on a whim, only to find years later that it helped him revolutionize desktop printing.

There are, of course, countless possibilities here at Stanford, so how should you choose what to try? A good rule of thumb is to pursue the things that intrigue you — just as Debnil did — and once you find something exciting, invest a lot of time in it. Once again, don’t hold back!

Some of you might be shy or afraid of joining a group that seems interesting to you. Try not to let that get in the way; look for ways to overcome your hesitations. When I was in college I wanted to join the student newspaper but I lacked confidence about my writing, so I joined as a photographer, and only eased into writing over time with the support of other students. It remains one of the fondest memories of my time in college, and the skills I learned have been really important to my later career, including giving speeches like this one.

What other advice can I give? I’ll leave you with six additional thoughts, some of which echo points made by the previous speakers.

First, make time for people. Stanford students and faculty come from all over the world, and I urge you to get to know people whose experiences are different from yours. The relationships you form here — with your fellow students and with your professors — will be some of the most important things you will take away from Stanford. But those relationships require time!

Second, make a commitment to service. Stanford has a long tradition of public service and of making a difference in the world. Through Cardinal Service, Stanford students can engage in public service experiences on campus or off. Debnil coached debate and helped found a student group that uses computer science for social impact. These are two great examples, but there are many other opportunities — courses, internships and other kinds of programs.

Third, be kind. Stanford is a community, not just a university, and overt kindness and friendliness are things that set it apart from many other institutions.

Fourth, be optimistic and confident in your abilities. You belong here – and don’t ever doubt it. College can seem overwhelming at times, but we know you have what it takes to get the most out of it.

Fifth, remember you’re not alone. If, at times, it seems to be too much, there are lots of people who are here to help you, including advisers, peer helpers, RAs and counselors.

And finally: Be adventurous. If you have a passion, go for it!

In 1891 — 125 years ago — Jane Stanford wrote an address to the university’s first students. I think her advice is just as relevant today. She wrote, “There is only one failure for you and that is not to be true to the best you know.”

So, I urge you to take that to heart: Be true to the best you know.

To the parents here today: I know how incredibly proud you are of your sons and daughters, but I know you’re feeling a little anxious too. The first day of college is a big day for us parents. Because, you see — today I am not just a new president — I am a new Stanford parent just like you. My daughter too is a member of the Class of 2020 — so I have a pretty good idea about the roller coaster of emotions you are experiencing right now.

Thank you for entrusting your sons and daughters to us. We are so happy they have chosen Stanford, and I pledge we will do our best by them.

And, please know that just as we welcome them, we welcome you. You are now part of the Stanford family as well.

To the Class of 2020 and transfer students: Go forth and explore! I am eager to share my first year with you.

I thank you all for joining us today. Welcome to the Farm!