Commencement address to Class of 2020 by France Córdova

Following is the prepared text of the address by France Córdova for delivery at Stanford’s Commencement ceremony for 2020 graduates on June 11, 2022.

President Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Drell, trustees, faculty and staff, families and friends who have supported these graduates through their studies, please join me once more in congratulating the Class of 2020!

Graduates, when you began your college experience you may have envisioned you’d attend “Stanford in Italy” or “Stanford in Cape Town.” Instead, most of you attended “Stanford in hometown.”

These past two years have been different than you expected. They may have been marked by loneliness, uncertainty, and the grief of losing loved ones. Despite this adversity, you rewrote your college experience in a way that future generations will recognize as epitomizing resourcefulness and grit. You found ways to stay connected to one another, pursue intellectual and creative activities, learn new skills, and occasionally go viral. One Stanford geology alumna spent her time preparing for 6 months on the Space Station – congratulations Jessica Watkins!

Graduates, you stayed the course and got your degree, and perhaps have already started a new job or graduate school. I admire your resilience. Now you’ve returned to celebrate with family and friends who have supported you, as you became the person you are today. With one foot in the future and one in the past, you can think of today as your graduation ceremony and your first reunion as alumni!

I’d like to thank you for inviting me to celebrate with you. I missed my own Stanford commencement – virtual wasn’t an option back then. Today, I am finally participating in a Stanford graduation – after more than a half-century! It is a good reminder that sometimes a door that appear closed, reopens.

Why did I miss my own graduation? I had fulfilled my undergraduate course requirements as an English major two quarters early and was working across the country, pulled by the lure of sites unknown. I needed time off to explore the places I’d only heard and read about before embarking on my planned graduate studies in anthropology. My make-it-up-as-you-go itinerary started with waitressing in Vail, Colorado, for the skiing, and New Orleans for a taste of the French Quarter and all that jazz. It carried me to New York and Israel as a guest magazine editor and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to encourage college students to do educational projects outside their college’s walls. I had a lot of jobs and subleases and unique encounters – all during what was supposed to be my final months of college. I told myself I wanted to broaden my experience; my secret wish was to accumulate the material to write novels.

So, you see – I was everywhere – into many disciplines at Stanford, and many places afterward. When it came to the future, though, I was nowhere. I didn’t have a clue where I was going. I was happy vectoring into the unknown – I told myself I was exploring “real life.”

It is that road ahead, the one that is undefined – and how you finally arrive at that place where you know you belong – that’s what I want to talk with you about today.

Not unlike your generation, my Class of 1969 was preoccupied with the social and political changes taking place around us. Our undergraduate experience was dominated by the Vietnam War – no student at that time has forgotten the candlelight marches through campus, the speeches sitting in the corridors of the administration building, the fear in the voices of her fellow students as they got their draft numbers. There was no TikTok to convey our generation’s angst, yet the ripple of dissent was so loud you could hear it across the country. Folk singers Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were our poet and minstrel. Perhaps this state of disquietude made me bolder, less afraid to set out on uncharted territory, to change plans that had been made at an earlier time by an earlier version of myself.

My journey both ended and started during the summer after graduation. I was serendipitously introduced to neutron stars. It was early days for these endpoints of stellar evolution – the discovery of them as pulsing beacons of light came only two years before. I was introduced to them via public television. A featured scientist figuratively dropped a marshmallow onto a neutron star, liberating tons of hypothetical energy. My response to that was “wow!”

I asked myself, how do scientists know what they know? How does mathematics – a language devised by humans – lead us to greater truths about a seemingly infinite cosmos? I had discovered science. I resolved to become a physicist by the time I was 30 and study the stars, the stars I had wondered about since I was a young girl and looked from up my bedroom window at the night sky.

“What about your Stanford education?” my parents and friends would ask over the next several years as I plodded through graduate school in physics. They asked, “How could the poets and theologians and linguists you studied so earnestly help you explore the cosmos?” That’s what I thought they were saying. What they really were saying was: Aren’t you done studying yet? And, is it really so hard for you to find someone to marry?

As a matter of fact, those poets and theologians did set me on my science course! Starting with my mother, who read Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to us when we were growing up. I was besotted with the works of Camus and Sartre in high school and the searching poetry of T.S. Eliot in college. All of these – questions – led me to look to science for answers about the origin and structure of the universe, and our own origins. Lionel Trilling, a literary critic I had chanced to meet at Harvard, said, “Literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” I feel the same about science: It takes the fullest and most precise account of possibility and complexity: precise because of mathematics, and full because of the persistent attempt to find laws that are universal. I was hooked on science and once I discovered it, never looked back – just up, with telescopes in space and on Earth. Science ignited my imagination and it resonated with my curiosity.

What comes with pursuing science? If you are “plucky” (a combination of persistent and lucky): the immense thrill of discovery. As a graduate student I was the first to detect with a satellite dying stars in binary systems pulsing rapidly in X-ray light. When I turned to public service as a scientist, I had the joy of seeing friends and colleagues make discoveries. In my job as director of the National Science Foundation I had the honor of introducing to the world the discoverers of gravitational radiation on Earth – a literally Earth-shaking result for which they won the Nobel Prize. And I had the joy of introducing an international group of astronomers who made the first image of a black hole’s shadow – an image that appeared on the front pages of every major newspaper in the world – and became Eye of Sauron and Homer Simpson memes.

I’ve seen countless discoveries turn into inventions that benefit all of us – like the smartphone each of you carries. Every capability of that magical device was discovered through scientific inquiry and experimentation. Then a genius put all of the science into that nice little package in your pocket, so you can actually watch your parents wring their hands on FaceTime as you explain to them that you are in fact pivoting to some unlikely, unplanned career.

My own background is complex: born in France of a Mexican-born father, a mother of Irish heritage from Queens – my 23andMe map literally covers the globe. It turns out that everything in my diverse background, and everything I have learned – my Stanford exposure to great writers and thinkers, to visiting new places and studying other cultures – have made me a different kind of scientist and a different kind of leader. For example, I’ve learned through my work leading universities and science agencies that all scientists have a responsibility to be civic scientists – to examine how scientific discoveries can be used for good, to forestall potentially bad uses, and importantly, to engage the public in this discussion. And I’ve learned that one of the worst things that can happen to science is when a promising young scientist leaves the field because they are exposed to harassment, belittlement, or unrecognized bias. So I worked to counter that by changing, for NSF at least, the terms and conditions of our grants to weed out bad researchers. I worked to make science more inclusive because the best ideas come from a diversity of thought, and that springs from different backgrounds, different experiences.

As you chart your own path, I encourage you to remember that when you discover your passion, and make the first steps of your career, everything you’ve learned, everything you’ve experienced, makes you a different kind of contributor. There are no typical lawyers, no model doctors or model artists, and no standard scientists – no mold of a college president. Each has a unique background, a unique set of experiences, and a unique passion that no one else has.

My advice to you is to close your eyes and ask, “What would I like to become by the time I’m 30?” Start moving in that direction, but keep your eyes out for side-streets and bike lanes. You may end up on an even more incredible journey than you had foreseen if you remain open to possibilities in unlikely places. Wherever you end up, you will put a unique stamp on that profession – there is only one “you,” so bring all of yourself to whatever you choose to do.

My science career has been informed by my humanities studies at Stanford. Science and the humanities, I’ve experienced, are not so far apart. They are both anchored in notions of beauty and symmetry, both guided toward truth. Both are about illuminating other worlds – the planets that surround us in space, the galaxies that open their secrets to big telescopes. There are also the past worlds revealed in museums and in history books, and present worlds in language and in literature.

You are surrounded by worlds to explore, you will create new ones, and you will help to craft a more equitable one for future generations. Your own collection of experiences – the ones you’ve had at Stanford, the ones you’ll have soon, will shine a new light on all the worlds you will encounter, whether in science or the humanities or the professions of business or medicine or teaching.

It was a slow revelation to me – a wanderer, an explorer – that real life is not somewhere else; it’s inside of you. It is taking shape as you sit and listen, and it emerges more fully formed as you read, inquire, and create. So, by all means, vector into the unknown – not in search of “real life” somewhere else – but to develop it within you through a variety of experiences, relationships, and challenges.

Einstein said, “The mere formulation of a problem is far more often essential than its solution, … To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances.” Great ideas come at the boundaries, the intersections of disciplines. They come from diversity of thinking, of perspectives, of backgrounds.

Graduates, are you open to taking a different path? Ask yourself, “Am I receptive to new ideas, and ready to raise new questions?” In so doing, you will realize that the most precious thing you have collected is not your degree, but the knowledge that has engaged you, enlightened you, made you think, inspired you to create.

I didn’t completely fail my parents’ expectations of me when I entered Stanford. I did meet someone – after graduate school – while working at a National Lab in New Mexico. We met rock-climbing on the cliffs above the Rio Grande river. I like to say our marriage started “on the rocks.” We’ve been married for 37 years, and have a daughter, a son in the Stanford Class of 2010, and grandchildren. I’ve maintained many of my precious Stanford friendships. One former FloMo roommate, now a celebrated painter, recently gifted me a portrait of my daughter. When we all convene at reunions, we marvel at the different paths our lives have taken and our gratitude for the time we spent together here at Stanford, which really doesn’t feel so long ago.

I wish you similar, sustained friendships from your time here, and success as you pursue new paths, and find and commit to your passion. I hope that you will be curious, open to new ideas, and filled with your own ideas – lots of big ideas. I hope that you will be inspired and inspiring. There are more generations to come – although, as you are Gen Z, I’m not sure what letter is next!

Thank you, graduates.