Remarks by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne at the 2018 Commencement ceremony
Following is the prepared text of remarks by university President Marc Tessier-Lavigne for delivery at Stanford’s 127th Commencement on June 17, 2018.
Members of the Class of 2018, Stanford faculty and staff, former and current trustees of our university, government officials, distinguished guests, and cherished family members and friends:
I thank you for joining us on this very special day to celebrate Stanford’s 127th Commencement. It is my great honor to warmly welcome all of you.
To all those who are receiving degrees today, I offer a special welcome: our senior class members and our graduate students. Congratulations to each and every one of you. We are so proud of all that you accomplished in your time on campus and of all the hard work that brought you to this stadium this morning.
Today, we will award 1,673 bachelor’s degrees, 2,433 master’s degrees, and 1,000 doctoral degrees.
For those students who are receiving bachelor’s degrees:
- 305 will graduate with departmental honors and 291 with university distinction
- 79 have satisfied the requirements of more than one major and 29 are graduating with dual bachelor’s degrees
- 442 of our seniors completed minors
- 187 will graduate with both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree
Stanford is proud to enroll students from all around the globe. Many of our international students will receive their degrees today:
- 121 members of our undergraduate class hail from 32 countries
- 81 countries are represented by the 1,143 international students who will receive their master’s and doctoral degrees
All the numbers I have cited illustrate the tremendous impact Stanford has on our global society. That positive impact is also due, in part, to the dedication, to the loving encouragement, and to the extraordinary support of the family members and friends who have championed each one of you in the years you have worked toward your Stanford degree.
Many of those family members and friends are here today, in the stands of our stadium. Others are watching this ceremony from around the world via livestream. They include your mothers and your fathers; spouses and children; your siblings; your grandparents, aunts, and uncles; your mentors; and your peers – people who helped you along the way to Stanford and through your years as Stanford students.
And so, I’d ask all the members of the Class of 2018, seniors and graduate students, to join now in one of Stanford’s treasured Commencement traditions.
Please rise. Think of all those family members and friends who supported you on this special journey. Turn to your family members and friends, if they are in the stands or if they are watching from around the world.
Please join me in saying these words to them: “Thank you!”
To the family members and friends of our Stanford graduates, I say “thank you,” as well. Thank you for entrusting your loved ones to our university in their time here and thank you for all that you have done to ensure their success.
Remarks and introduction of Commencement speaker
One of the great honors I hold as president of Stanford is the opportunity to speak to you, the members of the Class of 2018, on your Commencement day.
This is a great privilege for me.
Your years at Stanford have been a time of intellectual discovery, incredible accomplishment, and extraordinary dedication. Today, we honor all that you have achieved, and with all the ceremony that such achievement warrants.
I am honored this morning to recognize your achievement with some words about my great hope for you, as you leave the family of Stanford students and join the family of Stanford alumni.
My hope, as you enter the world as graduates, is this: That we, at Stanford, have prepared you for both a life of purpose and a life of continual exploration.
To explain what I mean by a life of purpose and a life of exploration, I’d like to tell you a story about a Stanford alumna who was one of our university’s most beloved professors. Her name was Edith Mirrielees. She was a member of the Class of 1907.
Professor Mirrielees taught writing. She was widely recognized for her insights and skill. Many of the great American writers of the early 20th century knew and respected her.
When a young man named John Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford, he signed up for Professor Mirrielees’ class. Steinbeck’s dream was to be a writer. And he was sure that Professor Mirrielees would teach him the secret to writing great short stories.
Almost immediately, Professor Mirrielees dashed the young Steinbeck’s hopes. As Steinbeck later wrote, Professor Mirrielees made it very clear that there was no magic formula to writing a great short story.
Instead, this is what Professor Mirrielees taught Steinbeck: “A story to be effective had to convey something from writer to reader and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that […] there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and technique at all – so long as it was effective.”
What Steinbeck learned is what I hope each one of you will remember in the years ahead. Just as there is no magic formula for writing a great short story, there is also no magic formula for living a life of purpose, and of exploration.
This may seem daunting at the outset of your post-Stanford life. Formulas, rules, guidelines – these can be comforting. Simple measures of excellence and impact – awards, honors, and good grades – these are important, and they also can be affirming. They are clear. They are easy to identify, even if the work to achieve them is hard.
But these are not the only measures of success in life. And I think you will find that they are not, ultimately, the most meaningful measures of a life well lived.
So, inspired by Professor Mirrielees, here is how I would extend the lesson she taught to John Steinbeck, when applied to life itself:
“A life, to be purposeful, must convey something from the individual to the world. And the true measure of its impact is, in fact, the power of the individual’s offering. Outside of that, there are no rules.
“A life well-lived can take any shape, and can explore any direction, any career, any path at all, so long as it is purposeful.”
In other words, you are free to write your own story. Let purpose be your North Star, and let exploration be your compass. Which path you take, and what you explore along the way, is entirely up to you. True exploration will help you find your calling.
Some of you may have found it already – here at Stanford, or earlier. For many of us, finding a calling happens later, as we explore different paths.
In past and present Stanford alumni, I see individuals who have taken every possible path, explored every possible direction, and lived lives of the most meaningful purpose. I see teachers who mentor students through the challenging years of adolescence, and community leaders who improve their communities brick by brick. I see scholars and scientists who expand the boundaries of human knowledge, doctors who fight to save lives from global pandemics, and artists who illuminate and enrich the human experience. I see senators and Supreme Court justices working to make our union more perfect, and leaders of pioneering companies working to improve our health and quality of life.
There are professors and engineers, lawyers and philanthropists. There are mothers, fathers, grandparents – the loving family members who serve as caregivers to the next generation.
I see so many lives of purpose, lives that alumni of Stanford have lived, and are living, heeding the call to stay purposeful by contributing to the greater world beyond themselves, not only in their professional lives, but in their lives as a whole – in how they parent; in how they treat their peers, their co-workers, their neighbors; in how they serve others in their communities.
The records of their lives illustrate that excellence is not an end in itself. Excellence is a means to magnify an individual’s purpose and contribution to the world.
John Steinbeck was a Stanford student who wanted a basic lesson in how to write great short stories. But the lesson he learned instead – a lesson about exploration, and purpose, and impact – is a much more profound one.
And what people remember of Steinbeck today is not that he won the Nobel Prize in literature, or the National Book Award – the metrics of success. What they remember is the power of the stories he told, the power of his offering to the world.
And this brings me to another man who discovered, early in his years at Stanford, the power of his own offering to the world. He is a man who lives a life of both inspirational purpose and invigorating exploration.
His name is Sterling K. Brown, and today, he honors Stanford as its Commencement speaker.
Sterling’s achievements are substantial.
He is the first African American man to win the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama Television Series, the first African American man to win a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series, and the first African American man in 19 years to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
Time magazine recently chose him as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2018, Saturday Night Live chose him as a recent first-time host, and the gifted actress Ryan Michelle Bathe chose him as her husband.
Sterling and Ryan earned their bachelor’s degrees right here, at Stanford, in 1998, and then their MFAs from New York University.
Sterling’s bachelor’s degree here was in drama. It was not the degree he expected to earn when he enrolled as a freshman.
In fact, when Sterling came to the Farm from St. Louis, he planned to major in economics. He planned to become a businessman.
But in his freshman year, Sterling decided to audition for a play. He decided to explore.
The play was Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Sterling won the part of a main character – a former slave who has traveled North in the years of the Great Migration.
That part not only marked the beginning of his immersion in the dramatic arts and ultimately an award-winning career as an actor. It also represented an important step on Sterling’s journey toward purpose.
Sterling has spoken often about the significance of black actors playing parts that were purposely written as African American. Whether in his role as the accused Joseph Spell in the movie Marshall, or as prosecutor Christopher Darden in The People vs. O.J. Simpson, or as the character N’Jobu in Black Panther, Sterling’s performances attest to the fundamental truth that in art, the universal may be found in the individual.
That’s why all viewers, no matter our race, ethnicity, or gender, experience the joys and sorrows of the character Randall Pearson, whom Sterling plays on the television show This Is Us. Sterling’s performance as Randall – a character who is purposely African American – is so powerful, so moving, and so emotionally rich. It is a revelation of what it means to be human.
Beginning in his first year at Stanford, Sterling opened himself to exploration, and in so doing, he found his purpose: to unleash the universal truths of the individual experience. And this is a critical point that I think Sterling, by virtue of the life he lives, illuminates for you, who are members of the Class of 2018: Your purpose will be unique to you.
You may feel tempted, at times, to observe what other people’s purposes are, and to adopt them as your own. But ultimately, as you explore and build your career, you will need to search within what you are drawn to for your own unique purpose. That will serve as your truest guide to a life of fulfillment and meaning and joy.
As the young Steinbeck learned here, a century ago, there are no other rules.
And as Sterling himself has shown, a life can take any shape, and can explore any direction, any career, any path at all. But ultimately, it acquires its meaning through its purpose – through the power of the offering.
Please join me in welcoming Sterling K. Brown.
To the members of the Class of 2018, on behalf of Stanford University, congratulations to you on this very special day.
You have graduated from the family of Stanford students, and you have joined the family of Stanford alumni.
From this day forward, wherever you go in the world, whatever path you explore, and whichever purpose serves as your guide, you will remain forever Cardinal, and forever a part of the Stanford community.
In closing, as you start a new journey as graduates of Stanford, I hope you will remember these words:
Let today serve as a beginning, and not just an ending.
Seek those measures of excellence that are meaningful – that serve as true measures of the power of your offering to the world.
And most importantly: Live a life of purpose and a life of continual exploration.
Congratulations, Class of 2018!