Prepared remarks by student speaker Debnil Sur at Convocation
Good afternoon new students, families, President Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Etchemendy, Vice Provost Elam, Dean Shaw, faculty members and trustees.
I’d like to start with a survey for the first-year students. Everyone listening? Great. Here’s the question: raise your hand if you know what you want to major in. OK, hands down. Now, raise your hand if you have no idea.
If you have your hand up, don’t worry. At any time, almost half the student body is undecided. That is totally fine. If you stay open-minded and search for what you love, not knowing can be an incredible blessing.
Your time here is so much more than that piece of paper at the end. For the first time ever, your time is not scheduled; your courses are not picked out for you; and you can choose any field and work under its giants. It’s both incredible and terrifying.
I’ve experienced that myself. During Admit Weekend, I was broadly interested in physics and political science. I wanted to understand the laws of nature and society. But by freshman fall, I was engrossed in the wonderful new world of computer science. Like hundreds here, I completed the introductory series and spent late nights debugging failing code. But unlike many others, I didn’t love it.
I realized in sophomore fall that, unfortunately, I had auto-piloted my first year. I chose computer science because of brilliant peers and great courses, professors and research. Of course, that’s why our CS department is one of the best in the world.
But that didn’t automatically make it right for me. I resolved to find what I was really interested in – and hopefully use CS along the way. So, if I were in your shoes, I would do three things differently in my first year: think deeply about my interests, talk to tons of faculty, and keep many doors open through coursework.
That brings me to one of my favorite things about Stanford: doors that seem shut are almost always still open.
My sophomore and junior years brought about intense exploration. To find my real interests, I worked on research projects under six different professors in four disciplines, from quantifying congressional polarization using natural language processing to optimizing complicated linear algebra operations.
I took classes from seven departments, as diverse as religious studies and materials science. I talked to countless people for advice. I found a passion in public service, through coaching debate in East Palo Alto and helping found Stanford’s first computer science student group for social good. Plus, thanks to Stanford’s study-abroad opportunities, I studied theoretical math at Oxford, researched artificial intelligence in Edinburgh, and traveled around Western Europe along the way.
That is what I think makes Stanford truly incredible. Nowhere else has so many opportunities. Nowhere else keeps quite as many doors open just enough. Thanks to all that support, it’s totally OK to intellectually wander until you’ve found what feels right.
And sometimes, that goes full circle. Trying different research projects helped me find a cross-section that I love: my summer research applied artificial intelligence techniques to a cool political science problem by converting images of protests to usable data for social scientists. And through graduate computer science classes, I found beautiful uses of math to explain the world – the same feeling that once drew me to physics.
Before you know it, you’ll be in my shoes. The question we started with – “What are you majoring in?” – will be replaced with one even better: “What are you interested in?” After all, the point of a Stanford education isn’t the major on your diploma. It’s finding what makes you intellectually tick—the driving force for a lifetime of living and learning.
Class of 2020 and transfers, welcome to a new chapter in your life. Come in with an open mind, and soak in all the advice you find. Try new things, and see where they take you. It will be an incredible journey – and that’s what you’ll remember.
Welcome to Stanford.