Remarks by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne at the Commencement ceremony for the Senior Class of 2021

Following is the prepared text of remarks by university President Marc Tessier-Lavigne for delivery at Stanford’s Commencement ceremony for the Senior Class of 2021 on June 13, 2021.

Members of the Class of 2021, 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 participating here at Stanford, or joining us via livestream today.

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.

And now, to members of our senior class who are receiving their degrees today, I offer a special welcome.

You have been through a senior year unlike any in Stanford’s history. Today, we celebrate your accomplishments during your time at Stanford, your perseverance in the face of great challenges, and we look ahead with anticipation to everything you’ll do next.

Class of 2021: I want to express how proud we are of all that you have achieved during your time at Stanford, and of all the hard work that brought you to today.

Today, we will award 1,436 bachelor’s degrees.

Of our graduates, 274 will graduate with departmental honors and 255 with university distinction. Ninety-one have satisfied the requirements of more than one major, and 24 are graduating with dual bachelor’s degrees.

Four hundred and forty-four of our seniors completed minors, and 263 will graduate with both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree.

These numbers represent the hard work of students from around the globe. One hundred and fifty-four graduating seniors representing 57 countries will receive degrees today.

Some of our international students are here with us in the stadium, but I know 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.

All the numbers I have cited illustrate the tremendous accomplishments of Stanford’s graduates and their potential to have a positive impact on our world.

Graduates, during your time at Stanford, our faculty and staff have dedicated themselves to nurturing that potential in each of you. I want to take this moment to thank them for their ongoing support and encouragement, especially at the end of 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 the members of the Class of 2021 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. 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, and 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.

It is now my pleasure to turn the program over to Stanford’s Provost, Persis Drell, who will present the winners of the university awards.

Main remarks

It is one of my great honors, as Stanford’s president, to address our graduating seniors on Commencement day. And this year, it is a special joy to be gathered with so many of you here in Stanford Stadium.

Class of 2021, you have persisted through a time of extraordinary challenge. But your years at Stanford have also been marked by incredible achievement and intellectual exploration.

Your hard work and dedication have brought you to today. I hope you savor this moment.

To the entire Class of 2021, 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 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 with peers and classmates 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:

Maybe you performed alongside your peers in Stanford’s first remote Winter Performing Arts Festival, or maybe you participated in at-home lab work, with materials arriving by mail and experiments carried out side-by-side in video boxes over Zoom.

Perhaps you worked with others to make a difference through new, remote Cardinal Service opportunities, or even started your own non-profit, like the Stanford students who created “Bridging Tech,” which provides computers to vulnerable students at risk for falling behind in remote schooling.

Maybe you even spent nine weeks on the road with your teammates to bring home the national championship for women’s basketball.

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 graduating seniors, this has come at a crucial moment, as you prepare to launch into your post-college lives.

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 graduate school, to new jobs, 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.

Class of 2021, 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. And the strength and persistence that have brought you through the last year will help you in that pursuit.

Introduction of Commencement speaker

And that brings me to today’s Commencement speaker, Issa Rae.

An actor, writer, and producer, Issa Rae is known for portraying complex characters and everyday Black life onscreen, always with her trademark wit, wisdom, and creativity.

Issa graduated from Stanford in 2007 with a major in African and African American studies and a minor in political science.

Her acting talent, impressive writing skills, and comedic voice were evident from the very beginning of her time at Stanford.

As an undergraduate, she filmed her mockumentary Dorm Diaries about Black life at Stanford. She also collaborated with other students to create video and stage productions, including Spike Lee adaptations and a Motown version of Grease.

After Stanford, Issa went on to create and act in the groundbreaking web comedy series, The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. She wrote a best-selling memoir of the same name.

Issa created and stars in the HBO comedy series Insecure, for which she has earned multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.

And I personally can’t wait to hear her voice as Spider-Woman in the sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

In 2018, she was included in Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people, and she was twice listed as one of Forbes’ “30 under 30.”

In her writing, producing, and acting, Issa focuses on authentic experiences of young Black people today. She has broadened the types of stories being told about contemporary Black America.

Issa also produces film and TV and has her own music label and management company.

She uses her platform to champion emerging Black artists and other people of color across many mediums – from acting, to songwriting, to the visual arts.

Issa is also a vocal advocate for civil rights and women’s rights.

In the words of our Senior Class Presidents: Issa “embodies the courage, strength, and resilience that the Class of 2021 has demonstrated not just during this senior year in a pandemic, but during their entire Stanford careers.”

Please join me in welcoming Issa Rae.

Closing remarks

To the members of the Class of 2021, 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, Class of 2021!