Text of address by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne at the 128th Opening Convocation, Sept. 20, 2018
To our incoming first year and transfer students, I am honored to welcome you to Stanford. We are delighted that you’ve made the decision to join us.
Your experiences, your accomplishments and your unique perspectives will enrich our campus community.
I hope that you, likewise, will find yourselves challenged and enriched by your Stanford experience.
To all of the parents and family members who are here to wish you well as you embark on this journey, I thank you for entrusting your loved ones to us. I want to assure you that we will support and care for them as they begin taking those first steps toward the future.
We welcome you all to Stanford today.
Now, a moment ago, Jasmin told us that she came to Stanford with a plan to become a doctor. But once she got here, she took the opportunity to explore.
She realized that her passion lay down a different path. And so, she let her plans change.
Jasmin has taken on the challenge that also faces all of you. At Stanford, you will begin the exploration required to find your purpose.
It’s a process that begins in earnest in college, but continues throughout your life.
I went through my own exploration in college, and I, too, changed my plans.
I have always had a great love for math and science. I was certain I would become a physicist.
But a course in biology changed my scientific focus, and then an introductory philosophy course piqued my interest in that discipline.
The blend of those two interests led me to neuroscience, which combines biology with the bigger questions about consciousness and what it means to be human.
Like Jasmin and countless other students, I began to realize that life is not a straight path from beginning to end. It has twists, turns and departures that you cannot foresee.
I am sure many of you came here with a plan for how your future will look. You may think you have every step laid out in front of you.
But our job is not to give you the keys to a linear 50-year career. In fact, you’re very unlikely to have a linear 50-year career. Instead, we aim to impart to you the tools and knowledge with which you will navigate your own path and all of its unique twists and turns.
This afternoon, I want to give you three pieces of advice that will help you acquire those tools and skills during your time here at Stanford.
I encourage you, first, to seek experiences; next, to seek connections; and third, to seek your own way to contribute.
First, seek experiences.
The next four years will offer you a unique opportunity to explore your curiosities across many fields. I want to encourage you to look beyond what you already know and seek a breadth of experiences here at Stanford.
Whatever your interests are, there are opportunities here to explore them.
From art history and medieval studies to computer science, biomedical engineering and psychology, Stanford offers you the opportunity to explore in dozens of disciplines across the university.
Beyond your coursework, you also can get involved in countless activities here.
You can serve in student government. You can write for the Stanford Daily. You can even play innertube water polo!
There are quite literally hundreds of student groups on campus, and I encourage you to find the ones that spark your curiosity.
And as you explore in your coursework and activities, I also encourage you to see and experience as much of the world as you can during your time at Stanford.
Immerse yourself in communities and cultures through a study abroad program, an internship, or service work in communities throughout the United States and around the world.
You may, at times, feel consumed with figuring out what your professional life will be.
But far from distracting you from that challenge, exploring broadly will not only enrich your life, it will also help you discover what you love and help you refine your plans for your professional future.
Moreover, the things you try here will impart knowledge that will pay off down the road, often in unexpected ways. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen serendipity work in people’s lives.
You may take a course in coding or learn a language simply to explore an interest. But that knowledge may well benefit your life and career in unanticipated ways.
I’ll offer you one more reason to explore, for those of you who do have employment on your minds. And if you don’t, I expect that at least some of your parents do!
As you prepare yourself to enter the job market, you will discover that employers are looking for graduates with a breadth of knowledge across disciplines and the ability to think deeply and critically, and understand varied perspectives.
You may major in English with the goal of becoming a journalist, but the ability to interpret scientific data will give you an edge.
Likewise, medical schools are looking for future physicians who have a command of science, but who also have exposure to the humanities, which can help them communicate more empathetically with their patients.
And if you talk with leaders in tech firms, you will learn that they want to hire employees with a broad background that includes the arts, humanities or social sciences, which can position employees to develop more human-centered products and anticipate ethical and societal impacts of their work.
No matter what field you plan to go into, employers want to hire graduates who are trained to think and to see the world for all of its complexity and nuance.
The world is changing rapidly.
The best jobs of tomorrow may not even exist today.
By actively exploring new experiences, you will set yourself up to succeed not only here at Stanford, but in the years that follow.
Next, seek connections.
One of the most lifelong sources of joy from your college years will be the friendships you make here.
You will meet a wide variety of peers with different backgrounds, perspectives, and interests – friends who will open your minds and broaden your horizons.
I predict that your best and most lasting memories of Stanford will be of late-night chats in the residence halls, long meals in the dining halls or CoHo and gathering with your friends in Stanford Stadium.
I still cherish memories like these from my university days.
You will, of course, be focused on your studies and extracurricular activities. But it is just as important to devote time and energy to nurturing your friendships. Building friendships takes time.
Besides your peers, I encourage you to make connections with faculty and other mentors. Mentorship is one of the best ways to extend education beyond the classroom, and can open doors to research and fieldwork opportunities.
Mentors and peers will also be essential sources of support when you experience setbacks here at Stanford.
And you will experience setbacks here.
You will get critical feedback on assignments. You may get your first poor grade.
There may be moments where you feel discouraged in the search for your purpose.
That is when you will need to draw on the connections you have made with others. In those moments, I encourage you to seek guidance and support from peers, RAs, professors, coaches or staff from the Office for Religious Life or Student Affairs.
Remember, you are not alone. There will always be help and support for you here.
Remember that setbacks – even failure of one kind or another – are inescapable in life.
When surgeon Atul Gawande was a Stanford undergraduate, he got a C in his freshman writing seminar. He later recalled that he was horrified – he had never seen a letter like that on his report card before.
But he learned from the experience. Now, he is both a leading physician and a prize-winning and prolific writer on medicine and public health, with four books and many articles to his name.
But to get to that point, he had to overcome his setbacks and develop his resilience.
This reminds me of one of my favorite sayings: “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted.”
So when you face a setback – when you don’t get what you wanted – accept the experience and learn from it. Build on it.
Navigating setbacks is how we build resilience and set ourselves up for future success.
Seek your contribution
Finally, I encourage you to use your time at Stanford to find your way to contribute.
Our goal is to help you become engaged citizens and purposeful leaders. We want you to know how to use the skills and knowledge you acquire here to make a real impact in the world.
Stanford’s founding purpose is “to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization.”
The university was built with the goal of educating students and generating knowledge not only for its own sake, but also for the betterment of the world.
You will find many opportunities at Stanford to put these ideals into practice. Through the Cardinal Service program, you can address community needs while pursuing your academic interests and developing your leadership skills.
This summer, nearly 500 Stanford students completed Cardinal Quarter Fellowships, which support students in service-learning experiences around the world, from across the bay in Oakland to the Philippines.
Junior Harika Kottakota spent the summer in Uganda, where she developed an art-based curriculum for children with developmental disabilities.
Harika’s experience challenged her preconceptions about disability. It also showed her how community outreach can foster awareness and acceptance.
Harika, who is majoring in biology with minors in human rights and global studies, drew on skills and knowledge she developed at Stanford to make a difference in the lives of underserved children and their community.
In doing so, she extended her Stanford education to benefit others.
I encourage each of you to do the same – to go out into the world and find your own way to contribute. You will not only be improving our world, you will be finding greater meaning and a greater purpose in your work and your life.
I want to say a final word to the parents and families who are able to be here today.
With a college-age daughter myself, I know this is a bittersweet moment for you.
There are two thoughts I wish to convey:
First, I want to encourage you to give your kids the space they need to explore and make new connections here at Stanford.
But second, at the same time, please let them know that you will always be there for them when they need you.
You have raised tremendous young adults. Now we will be your partners in supporting them as they develop into successful citizens who will offer their own important contributions.
Thank you so much for joining us this afternoon.
I am so happy that you have chosen to spend the next four years with us. I cannot wait to see the paths that each of you take to finding your purpose.
Welcome to Stanford!