Commencement address to Class of 2020 by Marc Tessier-Lavigne
The following is the prepared text of Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s address to Stanford’s Class of 2020, delivered at Stanford’s Commencement ceremony for 2020 graduates on June 11, 2022.
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 our 2020 graduates, along with some graduates from the Class of 2021.
It is my great honor to warmly welcome all of you and to express my deep gratitude to you for returning to Stanford.
Many of you traveled great distances to be here. We are so grateful. Thank you all for being here to celebrate this joyful day with us.
I’d like to begin by asking you to join me in thanking everyone who has made today’s celebration possible, 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, when you left campus in the spring of 2020, you didn’t know – none of us knew – when you’d be back – whether the pandemic would last a few weeks, a few months, or much longer.
So for you, this isn’t just a commencement. It’s a happy reunion – an opportunity to reconnect with classmates, professors, and mentors you had to say goodbye to abruptly. It’s also an opportunity to once again stroll through the arcades on the main quad, relax on Meyer Green, and revisit your favorite haunts with old friends.
Most of all, it’s an opportunity to gather with loved ones to remember and celebrate all that you accomplished here at Stanford and, as importantly, to celebrate and share with one another everything that you have achieved since.
During your time at Stanford, our faculty and staff saw the potential in each of you and dedicated themselves to nurturing it. I want to take this moment to thank them for their support and encouragement throughout your years here and also in the time since.
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.
Many of your family members and friends are here today, in the stands of our stadium. Others are watching this ceremony from around the world.
They include your mothers and your fathers, your spouses and your 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 at Stanford.
And so now I’d like to ask all of our graduates to join now in one of Stanford’s cherished commencement traditions.
Please rise, if you are able. Think of all those family members and all those friends who supported you on this special journey. Turn to your family members and friends, if they are in the stands or 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.
Graduates, your achievements in the short time since you’ve left Stanford have already been remarkable. They have spanned every field and include accomplishments in business, scholarship, policy, and public service.
You’ve launched careers, and many of you have moved on to graduate school, medical school, or law school. You’re journalists, engineers, and teachers.
You’re helping solve some of our world’s great problems by developing global public health policies, working in low-income housing advocacy, researching the degradation of plastics, creating sustainable clothing, and more.
We are so proud of all you are doing. You are already having a positive impact in our world, and we will be watching, with excitement, as your journeys continue from here.
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.
It is one of my great honors, as Stanford’s president, to address our graduates on Commencement day. And what a special joy it is to be here this year, to be reunited with the Class of 2020 here in Stanford Stadium.
We have all waited so long for this day – from that day, more than six years ago, when you opened your email to learn you’d been admitted to Stanford, to your first day on campus during New Student Orientation, through years of rigorous intellectual exploration, through a campus shut-down and a virtual commencement celebration in 2020, and now, through the first couple years of your lives and careers away from our campus.
It has been a long and hard-fought journey, but you are here.
Your hard work and perseverance have brought you to today. I hope you are savoring this moment.
Today, each of you is pursuing your own path and taking steps toward your future. You’ve already begun to learn a lesson that many of us learn as we leave college and go out into the world – that we live our lives in chapters.
Your life – and every life – has distinct eras. Some you will see coming, and others will begin suddenly and unexpectedly.
Childhood is one; college is another.
But you’ll experience distinct eras throughout your lives and professional careers, too. The career you’ve begun may not be the one you’ll have forever. In fact, I predict the vast majority of you, if not all of you, will have multiple chapters in your professional life.
You may begin a family – and parenthood and family life will be a new chapter.
You may move to new places in our country or around the world.
You will enter eras of personal and career growth, of uncertainty, of caretaking, and of sudden change and loss. Those changes and evolutions will continue throughout your life – as will the unexpected twists and turns that are a part of every life.
As you come back for this delayed Commencement, you may already realize that, in reality, this is just one of many, many “commencements” in your life – one of many opportunities to pause and take stock of the path you are on, and consider how it has diverged from your plans in unexpected and often exciting ways.
It’s really important to take these moments to see how far you’ve come – how you’ve changed, and grown, and evolved – and to reflect on where you will go next.
These opportunities to return and reflect are precious and should be cherished. And while I certainly hope that you don’t have to delay celebrations like this ever again, nevertheless, I hope you will use this as a model throughout your life – to reflect on how far you’ve come, on how your goals have changed, and on what you still aim to accomplish.
Class of 2020, you went through something truly unique.
The spring of 2020 was an extraordinary time. When I think back, I can still feel, intimately, the shock – the deep uncertainty and anxiety that gripped us that spring, as the world shut down around us and as Stanford, too, closed its campus.
Rarely has a class experienced the total upheaval that you experienced in the spring of your senior year.
Rarely – but not never.
This morning, I would like to tell you the story of the Class of 1906.
Stanford’s Class of 1906 had a rough four years. They were nicknamed the Calamity Class, having faced, during their first three years at Stanford, not one epidemic, but two – typhoid fever and diphtheria.
Then, on April 18, 1906, at just after 5 in the morning, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake tore along the San Andreas fault.
Students were shaken from their beds by shocks that were felt throughout the Bay Area. The earthquake and resulting San Francisco fire are thought to have killed more than 2,000 people. Our campus sustained significant damage, including to Memorial Church and to much of the quad.
In letters home, students shared their anxiety, their deep uncertainty for the future, but also their resolve.
One student, Georgina Lyman, wrote about the confusion and chaos of the first days after the earthquake, right down to the empty grocery store shelves.
But she also described how students supported one another and tried to raise each other’s spirits, and she wrote movingly about how they sprang to action to provide aid and assistance to the surrounding communities.
Her words feel as timely now as they did a century ago.
The Class of 1906 ended up going home early for their final spring quarter … and Commencement was postponed – sound familiar? – in their case, until the following September.
That fall’s Commencement was a joyful reunion of friends and peers, much like this one. Their commencement speaker was Benjamin Wheeler, president of the University of California, who reflected on the earthquake the previous spring.
He said, and I quote: “The same disorder of nature which last April made men distrust the solid earth on which they dwelt revealed to them the sure resource of human helpfulness, and the same distress which showed how small their actual need in things of sense pointed straight toward the things that are real and the things that abide.”
In plain language, what he conveyed was this: The earthquake upended their world – it caused deep disruption and upheaval.
But, at the same time, it revealed deep truths about humanity.
World-changing moments do that for us. They reveal to us the things in our lives that are real, true, and lasting. The things that abide.
It is in those difficult moments that you discover what really matters. It’s a lesson that the Stanford community learned again in 2020.
I’d like to share a few thoughts about some key things that, to me, were revealed to be true over the last two years: the importance of our connections with one another, the importance of our commitment to knowledge, and the importance of our service to the world.
First, one of the main lessons of the pandemic – perhaps its central lesson – was about our connections with one another.
We learned what it means to keep one another safe and to support each other in times of great challenge. Each of us also learned the depth of loss we can experience when we’re forced to be apart from friends and loved ones and how central our community is to the human experience.
It was a vivid reminder of the importance of our connections with friends and loved ones. It highlighted how much we value those connections in person, though we also learned how to maintain those relationships from a distance, through Zoom calls and text messages, and virtual get-togethers.
Here at Stanford, you formed deep and lasting friendships. As with any hardship, the pandemic may have cemented those friendships even more.
And I hope the experience of the pandemic has also underscored for each of you the importance of maintaining and nurturing your friendships and your relationships, which will help sustain you throughout your life. Even as you get consumed with your careers, be sure to continue to make time for your friends and for your family.
Second, the pandemic, and other challenges of the past few years, revealed how important it is that we continue generating knowledge and applying it to the challenges of the world.
As COVID-19 spread, researchers around the world, including at Stanford, studied the virus, its effects, and developed tests, vaccines, and therapies that helped so much. Others applied their insights to improving remote education, understanding how past pandemics exacerbated inequities and determining what steps can be taken to mitigate those effects, and much more.
These experiences proved what we can achieve when we marshal our resources to address the great challenges we face.
In your years as students, you’ve learned to experiment with ideas and explore and discuss difficult topics. As you enter the next chapter of your lives, I urge you to continue to seek out new knowledge, engage in spirited debate, and apply your knowledge and talents to addressing the challenges of the world.
Which brings me to my third point: The last two years have emphasized the importance of service to our world.
From emerging and chronic diseases, to disinformation and polarization, to the climate crisis and geopolitical tensions, our challenges are global challenges, and they affect each of us.
Each of you has the knowledge and the ability to rise to these challenges and to help transform the world for your own future and for the generations that follow.
So in this moment of commencement, and in the many commencements that will follow throughout your life, I encourage each of you to reflect on the challenges we face, to imagine how our world can be transformed for the better, and to consider what you can do to be a part of achieving a brighter future.
In the fall of 1906, President Wheeler emphasized the clarity that follows great, world-changing events and upheaval. More than a century later, the disruption caused by the pandemic has given each of us an opportunity to reassess our values and to reflect on what is true and meaningful and fulfilling for each of us.
The Class of 1906, too, had the opportunity to reflect on their values and priorities – on what is true and what abides. They left Stanford and went on to become teachers, scientists, artists, doctors, and lawyers.
They worked in business and government and became leaders across a variety of fields. They became mothers and fathers.
They moved beyond the hardship of the earthquake and used what they learned here at Stanford to make a difference in our world and to build meaningful and fulfilling lives of purpose.
Now, you have the opportunity to shape your path forward based on those values and priorities, and we can’t wait to see what path you take.
Introduction of keynote speaker, France Córdova
And that brings me to today’s Commencement speaker, France Córdova.
France exemplifies how life is lived in chapters, as well as these values of connection with one another, a commitment to knowledge and truth, and service to the world.
A Stanford alum, France is an accomplished and deeply thoughtful academic and scientific leader, currently serving as president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a position she assumed in 2019 after a distinguished tenure as director of the National Science Foundation.
France has served as president of Purdue University, chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, and NASA’s chief scientist. At Purdue, she established the College of Health and Human Sciences and the Global Research Policy Institute. And at UC Riverside, she laid the foundation for California’s first public medical school in more than 40 years.
Also a pathbreaking astrophysicist, France was a leader in the emerging field of multiwavelength astrophysics in the 1980s. She has published more than 150 scientific papers and was co-principal investigator for a telescope experiment that is currently flying on the satellite XMM-Newton.
France earned her PhD in physics from CalTech after she completed her undergraduate degree here at Stanford. Now given her scientific credentials, it may surprise you to learn that she earned her bachelor’s degree in English, which may explain how she has crafted a career – involving multiple inspiring chapters – that so beautifully ties together science, a humanistic outlook, and great leadership.
France is a broad and creative thinker. Across her many roles, she has championed deeper and greater scientific understanding and thought deeply about how to engage resources and people in this effort.
She is a staunch advocate for research investment, known for generating energy and enthusiasm among governmental leaders and the public into cutting-edge science.
She is also a champion for women in science and has led the way in addressing the barriers that limit women in scientific fields and in working to create a culture of support in the organizations that she leads.
In all of her work, France exemplifies a commitment to knowledge, and to humanity, and to serving our world.
Please join me in welcoming France Córdova.
Again, to our alumni from the classes of 2020 and 2021: on behalf of Stanford University, congratulations to you for all you achieved here at Stanford and for all you have accomplished since.
As you continue on in your careers and in your lives, whatever twists and turns your own path takes, you will remain forever Cardinal and forever a part of the Stanford community.
In closing, I hope you will let today serve as the first of many commencements – many times to reassess, to reflect, to think of how far you have come, and the journey left in front of you.
You have persevered through an extraordinary and challenging time. Now is the moment to take what you’ve learned about yourself and about our world, about the things that are true and the things that abide, and to use that knowledge to shape the life you want to lead and the contributions that you wish to make to our world.
I believe in your ability to create a brighter future as you build your own life of meaning and purpose.