President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Convocation Remarks

Introduction

Thank you, Alexis, for such powerful remarks. You also reminded me that I need to catch up on episodes of Gossip Girl.

To our incoming first year and transfer students, I am honored to welcome each of you to Stanford University. Your mind, your heart, and the story of who you are inspire us. We are so looking forward to helping you spread your wings and fly… and to how your presence will enrich our campus.

To all of the parents and family members who are here, thank you so much for entrusting your loved ones to us. We pledge to do our best by them as though they are our own. In fact, a Stanford sophomore is my own – my daughter Ella.

Please know, just as we welcome our students, we welcome all of you to the Stanford family.

Students, as you begin an incredible odyssey of self-discovery and world discovery through academic and extracurricular activities, I am thrilled by the opportunity to share a few thoughts.

First, I want to build on what Alexis just said and to reaffirm that you belong here.

And, then I want to challenge you to do three things:

  • To be curious amidst opportunity.
  • To be of service to the world; and
  • To be true to the best you know.

You belong here.

Again, the foremost thing I want you all to know is: you belong here.

Whether you are the first person in your family to go to college, or whether many people in your family have attended college;

Whether you and your family were born in the United States, or in another special place somewhere around the world;

Whether you come from a family of lesser or greater financial means;

Whether you are strongly committed to an identity, a group, a faith, a talent, an activity, a political party, a life philosophy—something important … something near and dear to you—or whether you are still figuring out a lot of those things;

I want all of you to know: you belong here.

This includes our students enrolled in the DACA program, who are with us today.  We want you to know that we will continue to push for a legislative solution to protect you and all our country’s DREAMers. You belong here and we will stand by you.

Now, even though all of you belong, this doesn’t mean it will always be easy.  We know you are up to the challenges that will come your way, but that doesn’t mean you need to tackle them alone.

Know that we are here for you every step of the way.  Ask for guidance and support. Your peers, your RAs, your professors, and the myriad support services around the university stand ready to help.

So, explore and participate in your experiences with confidence, knowing you belong here.

But with this belonging comes a responsibility: that you too will do your part to make Stanford a community that fosters belonging for all its members.

Throughout the university, we know that our strength comes from the diversity of our community and our culture of inclusion of people of all backgrounds, nationalities, races, genders, identities, religions, political views and ways of thinking.

A thriving academic community depends on the free and open exchange of ideas in a culture of mutual respect, even – and especially – if the ideas and perspectives of others don’t square with our own.

We learn by being exposed to new perspectives, by having our ideas challenged, by being forced to sharpen our arguments.  A university is a place that enables vibrant intellectual exchange, in service to your education and to research – the search for truth – especially after a summer in which we have witnessed violent displays of intolerance, bigotry and hatred in our country and throughout the world. It is essential for each of us to rededicate ourselves to these foundational values of diversity, inclusion and free expression.

So, draw on our diversity.  Get to know your peers and members of the faculty from different backgrounds and perspectives, from different regions and countries.  They will profoundly enrich your world-view, and you will develop relationships that last a lifetime.  The broadening of your horizons, and the web of relationships you will develop, will be among the most important gifts you will take away from your time here at Stanford.

Be curious amidst opportunity.

Now, I want to offer my first challenge. I challenge you to be curious amidst opportunity.

In your own four years here at Stanford, you will have access to extraordinary scholars on the leading edge of every field and discipline: in the arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences and engineering; in law, medicine, business, and education; in public service, and in entrepreneurship. I urge you to take advantage of this breadth, not to focus too narrowly as you choose a field of study.

Now, some of you may already be thinking about choosing something that will be practical and employable after graduation. I can certainly understand that kind of thinking. In fact, perhaps paradoxically, it is part of why I want to challenge you to embrace adventure, to follow passions, to stretch yourself, and to stay open. That’s because your best preparation for a rapidly evolving and more globalized world is, in fact, a broad education.

Research shows us that your first job almost certainly won’t be your last job.  Statistically, most of you will actually change jobs multiple times in just your first decade after graduation.  What you need to be successful in a world of constant change is breadth, flexibility, and resilience.  And the best way to develop those capabilities is to expose yourself to multiple fields and experiences, to seek out a broad education.

The good news is that, here at Stanford, just when you think you are sure about something, you will be introduced to a new and compelling idea, mystery, activity, or field of study. You will encounter unexpected opportunities—embrace them! Following our deepest curiosities is not only thrilling, it is also really smart. Because doing so nurtures personal growth, increases your adaptability, and prepares you for a lifetime of learning.

That certainly was my own personal experience.  When I started college, I was nervous. I was the first in my immediate family to attend university, and I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I had to have everything figured out. On day one, I had decided I was going to become a physicist, and I had begun to plan every step of my life until retirement.

Here is what I wish someone had told me on my first day: Life is lived in chapters. So even as you plan ahead, always keep an open mind.

Because what ended up happening to me is this: An introductory philosophy course with Professor Walker caught my eye. Out of curiosity, I decided to to take the class. And after that one, I took another and another. Philosophy taught me how to think, which also taught me how to lead. I use the concepts of logic and reasoning every day as a scientist and as a leader.

And chance exposure to biology in a biophysics class also piqued my interest, so I deepened my focus on biology and became a neuroscience researcher and university professor. Then I worked for a biotech company to develop drugs to treat deadly diseases.  So my day-one plan to become a physicist evolved dramatically as I explored and found my true calling.

Now, serving as president of Stanford, one of the great honors of my life, I have the pleasure of encouraging you on your own exciting journey of possibility. Based on my personal experience, I therefore hope that, beyond getting deep knowledge in the area of concentration you select – in your major – you will also expose yourself broadly to what Stanford has to offer.

Go visit Rodin and “The Shock of the Modern Body” at the Cantor Arts Center. Stand inches away from Deborah Oropallo’s painting “Houdini Challenged” at the Anderson Collection. Think about what art can teach you about computer science, engineering, and economics. Think about what machine learning can teach you about art.

Join a club, play intramural sports, start a podcast. Learn how 3D printing is changing scientific discovery, engineering, and the arts. Explore how virtual reality is being used to build resilience. Study literature and philosophy to learn how to strengthen your arguments, and to learn about yourself and what you truly believe.

As you decide what to focus on, be open to falling in love with the unexpected – new areas of knowledge and paths to discovery.

Ideas, inspirations, experiments, passions, synergies, questions, connections, challenges – these invaluable flecks are the units of discovery.

So, be curious, and go after the opportunities that make your heart sing.

Be of service to the world.

Next, I challenge you to be of service to the world.

Since the founding of Stanford, we have pursued and celebrated excellence, but not for the sake of excellence.  We pursue excellence as a means to make the world a better place. In your years here, we will seek to support you and to help you nurture within you this higher purpose – the betterment of the world.

Our students and scholars are passionate about being of service and being involved global citizens.  For example, our Cardinal Service program weaves public service more deeply into the Stanford student experience. Become part of the large community of students who have embraced community service.  This summer alone, nearly 500 students were engaged in Cardinal Service internships around the world.

Our scholars are also taking on every major challenge society faces.

They are breaking ground in medicine, applying engineering to promote sustainability, pushing the limits of creativity in the arts and humanities,  driving new human potential in the social sciences, imagining new frameworks for justice in the practice of law, breaking glass ceilings in business, and so much more.

Students, wherever your pursuits take you, I challenge you to always find ways to be helpful to those around you—to be of service to our world.

Be true to the best you know.

In a speech our founder Jane Stanford prepared for Opening Day on this very spot about 126 years ago, she wrote, “There is only one failure for you and that is not to be true to the best you know.”

I invite you to rise to her challenge.

Being true to the best you know means making yourself, your family and our university proud – through your integrity and your courage in personal and academic choices. Being true to the best you know means taking care of yourself and taking care of others;  respecting yourself and respecting others; respecting your body and respecting the bodies of others; holding yourself and one another accountable for preventing sexual violence.

Being true to the best you know also means being a good friend.  And one of the most important tools to achieve that is empathy. Through giving and receiving empathy we are able to experience the meaningful connections and mutual understanding we all seek in our lives.

Empathy is the focus of research findings published in August by Stanford psychology professor Jamil Zaki. The study showed that when times get tough – as they do at some point for all of us – the people we turn to are not so much those who are interesting or entertaining. The people we turn to are those who are kind and understanding listeners.

The study actually examined first year college students, like you, and showed that those who handled stress the best were the ones who chose friends with one specific quality: empathy. This is something for you to consider as you choose your friends and as you choose how you want to be a friend this year.

Conclusion

Class of 2021, we know you are an extraordinary class. Enjoy this exhilarating beginning to all of what comes next. Trust me, you are ready.

Class of 2021, transfer students, families, and friends—welcome to Stanford University!