Remarks by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne at the 2021 Commencement ceremony for advanced degree recipients

Following is the prepared text of remarks by university President Marc Tessier-Lavigne for delivery at Stanford’s Commencement ceremony for advanced degree candidates on June 12, 2021.

Graduates, Stanford faculty and staff, former and current trustees of our university, and cherished family members and friends:

I thank you for joining us on this very special day to celebrate Stanford’s 130th Commencement.

It is my great honor to warmly welcome all of you, whether you are here at Stanford or joining us via livestream.

As you can see, our Commencement ceremony looks a little different this year.

I’d like to begin by asking you to join me in thanking everyone who has made our in-person celebration possible, in this most unusual year and in light of public health restrictions, including the groundskeepers, ushers, event planners, and crew, as well as those who are working our cameras and the livestream, to make it possible for us to share this celebration with those who cannot be here in person.

Thank you, all.

Graduates, you have persisted through a time of extraordinary challenge. But your years at Stanford have also been marked by incredible achievement and intellectual exploration.

We are all so proud of everything you have achieved during your time at Stanford and of all the hard work and dedication that have brought you to today.

Today, we will award 2,171 master’s degrees and 1,103 doctoral degrees.

These numbers represent the hard work of students from around the globe; 1,018 international students representing 89 countries will receive degrees today.

Some of our international students are here with us in the stadium, but many of you are watching from your homes around the world.

For those who are watching from afar today, your absence is felt here.

I wish you were celebrating with us in person, but I look forward to the day when we welcome you back to Stanford as alumni.

Graduates, during your time at Stanford, our faculty and staff have dedicated themselves to nurturing the potential in each of you.

I want to take this moment to thank them for their ongoing support and encouragement, especially during this most difficult year.

Your accomplishments are 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.

Some of those family members and friends are here today, in the stands of our stadium.

Many more are watching this ceremony from around the world.

They include your mothers and your fathers, 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 at Stanford.

And so, I’d ask all of the graduates to join now in one of Stanford’s cherished Commencement traditions.

I ask each of you to think of all those family members and friends who supported you on this special journey, and if you’re here with us in the stadium, please rise, if you are able.

And whether you’re here in the stadium or watching with your loved ones from afar, turn to your family members and friends.

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.

To all of our graduates, in person and around the world, I’m delighted to celebrate you, and everything you’ve accomplished at Stanford, as you prepare to embark on the exciting next stage of your journey.

You are entering the world beyond Stanford during a time of historic change. The pandemic has altered our world profoundly.

It has also affected each of us on a deep, personal level. Some have lost loved ones over the last year. Others have missed personal milestones or celebrations. We’ve all lacked in-person contact with friends and peers.

And while we are gradually emerging from the pandemic here in California and across the United States, I know that is not the case in many parts of the world, where it continues unabated.

For all those who are still suffering the effects of the pandemic, in our country and around the world, my thoughts are with you.

It has been a hard year.

But in the face of this hardship, our community kept going.

I would like to say a few words today about everything you have accomplished over the last year and how you have strengthened our community, even during this time of fragmentation.

And then, I’d like to share how I believe these experiences will have helped to prepare you as you enter the world beyond Stanford.

First, you have strengthened our community by leaning on one another.

Your friendships have grown stronger in the face of shared challenges.

You’ve kept one another safe by embracing health and safety protocols, like wearing masks and participating in COVID testing.

And you’ve reinforced our community, by working together to find new ways to pursue the things that matter to you:

Perhaps you’ve connected with one another through remote live performances, online painting workshops, or virtual artistic showcases.

Maybe you’ve worked with your team to develop new processes for lab research or found creative ways to advance shared research projects remotely.

You may even have worked with friends and colleagues to contribute to Stanford’s COVID-19 response.

Maybe you helped develop diagnostic tests, or assisted with clinical trials or vaccination drives.

Or perhaps you studied the spread in incarcerated populations or worked to improve our understanding of how past pandemics exacerbated disparities, and what steps can be taken to mitigate those effects.

Whatever your own particular area of focus, all of you have found ways to pursue your studies and explore your interests through a difficult time. And in working together to do so, you’ve also reinforced our community, at a time when we were physically apart.

Another way in which you’ve strengthened our community, even as you’ve navigated the pandemic, is through your response to racial injustice.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last year, you pressed for change in our broader society – and here on our campus, too.

You shared your personal experiences and your ideas for how Stanford needs to change. And as we’ve launched initiatives aimed at advancing a more just society and improving Stanford itself, your insights have helped to guide our way.

To our graduates who have played a key role in this work – I am tremendously grateful for your commitment to making our community better.

Finally, at the same time as you have made our community stronger over the last year, each of you, individually, has also learned, and grown, and changed through these experiences.

The pandemic upended our lives. After the year we have had, it may feel tempting to turn your back on this time – to forget about it as you move on to what’s next.

But living through this time has also provided each of us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reassess – to think about what we really value and the shape that we want our lives to take.

For graduates, this has come at a crucial moment, as you prepare for the next step in your lives and careers.

You now have a rare opportunity to reassess what interests, relationships, and pursuits give you meaning and fulfillment, and to design your life based on what you truly value.

For some of you, this reassessment may affirm the path you were already on. Perhaps your experiences over the last year have solidified your decision to pursue further studies in your chosen field, enter a profession, or live in a certain part of the country or world.

But for others, your experiences over the last year may have caused you to change course. Perhaps the last year has shown you new ways to use your talents to make a difference in the lives of others.

So as each of you prepares to move on to new jobs, further studies, or to other new adventures, I encourage you to take time to reflect, with your family, loved ones, and friends.

I want you to ask yourselves:

  • What have I learned about myself this year?
  • What are my values – and how have they shifted in the last 15 months?
  • What matters most to me?
  • And how can I use this knowledge to shape the life I want to lead and contribute to the world?

As Stanford graduates, you have many opportunities in front of you. It is up to each of you to decide what to do with everything you have worked so hard for.

Graduates, I am so proud of everything you’ve accomplished over your years here and of the persistence, grace, and commitment to others that you have shown over the last 15 months.

I hope these experiences have helped clarify what is truly important and meaningful to you.

You have gained the knowledge and the skills to pursue a life that conforms with your values. The strength and tenacity that have brought you through the last year will help you in that pursuit.

Introduction of Commencement speaker

That brings me to today’s Commencement speaker: Atul Gawande.

A surgeon, writer, and public health leader, Atul Gawande uses his platform to advance health system solutions that produce better care and better lives for people everywhere.

Atul graduated from Stanford in 1987, with majors in biology and political science. Not only is he a Stanford alum – he’s also a Stanford parent.

After Stanford, he studied philosophy and politics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and later earned his medical degree and master’s in public health from Harvard.

He is a practicing endocrine surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and a professor at the Harvard Medical School and T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

He has founded and chaired organizations focused on innovations in health systems, making surgery safer globally, and COVID-19 testing and vaccination services. He also served as a member of the Biden transition COVID-19 Advisory Board.

In addition to his roles in medicine and public health, Atul has been a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine since 1998. He has also written four New York Times best-selling books.

He is the winner of numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, and the Lewis Thomas Prize for writing about science. In 2010, he was included in Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people.

This is someone who has clearly set the bar very high.

Across his many roles, Atul is a champion for humanism in health care. He writes movingly about the challenges, complexities, and larger ethical issues of modern medicine and explores how we can better approach questions of medicine and care.

He has advocated for practical solutions to the challenges of modern surgery and urged doctors to connect with patients over their priorities and values, not just their medical needs. He has also written about the current state of care in developing countries.

In all of his work, Atul brings energy, insight, concern for others, and a vision for how things can be better.

His example shows what you can accomplish when you lead with humanity and values and use your voice to create real change.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Atul Gawande.

Closing remarks

To our graduates: 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 whatever contribution you seek to make – 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 let today serve as a true Commencement – a beginning, and not an ending.

You have persevered through an extraordinary and challenging time. Now is the moment to take what you’ve learned and use that knowledge to shape the life you want to lead.

I urge each of you to follow your talents, your interests, and your values to discover your own unique path and to build a life of meaning and purpose.

Congratulations, 2021 graduates!