Real life is not somewhere else, it’s inside of you, France A. Córdova tells the Class of 2020

France A. Córdova, an astrophysicist and leader in higher education and government, encouraged graduates to remain open to possibilities in unlikely places at the Class of 2020 Commencement ceremony.

On Saturday, around 2,600 alums from the Class of 2020 reunited at Stanford Stadium for a long-awaited celebration: their in-person Commencement ceremony.

Go to the web site to view the video.

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Stanford Commencement Class of 2020 highlights: France A. Córdova, an astrophysicist and leader in higher education and government, encouraged graduates to remain open to possibilities in unlikely places at the Class of 2020 Commencement ceremony.

The occasion, delayed because of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, was a joyous one, filled with beaming smiles (some behind face coverings), cheerful laughter, and exuberant waves, high-fives, and elbow taps as graduates reconnected with one another after their lives were upended their senior year.

“Class of 2020, you went through something truly unique,” President Marc Tessier-Lavigne told the graduates.

Tessier-Lavigne encouraged graduates to use the occasion to acknowledge how much they have grown and evolved as a result of the uncertainty and anxiety that defined much of the past two years.

“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 use this as a model throughout your life to reflect on how far you’ve come and how your goals have changed, and on what you still aim to accomplish,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

Tessier-Lavigne also noted how plans can change and paths diverge in unexpected ways. He drew parallels between the Class of 2020 and the Class of 1906, who also had their lives interrupted when the San Francisco earthquake struck. The 7.9 magnitude earthquake caused so much damage to the Stanford campus that students had to go home early, and Commencement was postponed until the following September.

Nor was that their only challenge: Their class was nicknamed the “Calamity Class” – during their first three years at Stanford, they experienced two epidemics: typhoid and diphtheria.

But much like the Class of 2020, the Class of 1906 also rallied to support the surrounding communities.

Tessier-Lavigne also reminded graduates of some of the important lessons to emerge from the past two years, including how important community and human connection are, the value of generating knowledge, what can be accomplished when people come together to tackle a problem, and the importance of service to the world.

“As you enter the next chapter of your lives I urge you to seek out new knowledge, engage in spirited debate, and apply your knowledge and talents to addressing the challenges of the world,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

The thrill of discovery, exploring the unknown and unexpected

Delivering the 2020 Commencement address was astrophysicist France A. Córdova, a former leader of major universities and government agencies – she was the youngest person and first woman to serve as NASA’s chief scientist and was also the director of the National Science Foundation. She is now president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance.

Córdova, who graduated from Stanford in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in English, reflected on how her career path pivoted from literature to physics and then to outer space.

Córdova said that it was through her pursuit of the unknown – taking the undefined path – that she ultimately found her way.

Córdova shared how she missed her own graduation to travel the world, not knowing where she was going. “I was happy vectoring into the unknown – I told myself I was exploring ‘real life,’ ” Córdova said.

It was by serendipity that she became captivated by science – after watching a scientist discuss the magnitude of neutron stars on a public television broadcast, she became mesmerized by space.

“My response to that was ‘wow!’ ” Córdova said. “I asked myself, how do scientists know what they know? How does mathematics – a language devised by humans – lead us to greater truths about an apparently infinite cosmos?”

“There is only one ‘you,’ so bring all of yourself to whatever you choose to do.”

—France A. Córdova

Córdova resolved to become a physicist by the time she was 30, much to the surprise of her family who wondered what was going to happen to her Stanford education.

But as Córdova pointed out, it was in literature where she received some of her first lessons about the wonders of the universe, from reading Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas with her mother as a child to discovering Camus, Sarte, and T.S. Eliot in high school and at Stanford. Much like scientists, these theologians, poets, and authors also grappled with understanding life’s many complexities.

“My science career has been informed by my humanities studies at Stanford,” Córdova said.

“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 the truth. Both are about illuminating other worlds – the planets that surround us in space, the galaxies that open their secrets to big telescopes. Yet there are also the past worlds revealed in museums and in history books, and present worlds in language and in literature.”

Over the course of her career as an astrophysicist, Córdova became known for her contributions to space research and instrumentation. “What comes with pursuing science?” Córdova asked the audience. Her answer: “If you are ‘plucky’ – a combination of persistent and lucky: the immense thrill of discovery.”

Córdova went on to share some of the discoveries she made, like how as a graduate student, she was the first to detect with a satellite dying stars in binary systems pulsing rapidly in X-ray light. She also described the pleasure of seeing friends and colleagues succeed. For example, she recollected how as director of the National Science Foundation, she had the honor of introducing to the world the research team that confirmed the existence of gravitational waves.

But some of the biggest discoveries Córdova made about life resided within herself.

“It was a slow revelation to me – a wanderer, an explorer – that real life is not somewhere else; it’s inside of you,” Córdova said. “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.”

Córdova also discussed how she has worked hard to make science more inclusive.

“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,” Córdova said, adding how the best ideas come to emerge from having a diversity of thought, background, and experience.

Córdova closed her speech by offering advice to the young graduates, some of whom have already begun their careers or are in graduate school.

She encouraged students to think about what they would like to do by the time they are 30 and while working toward that, look out for the unexpected possibilities that emerge in life’s path.

“Keep your eyes open 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.”

Celebrating the Class of 2020, in person

While the Class of 2020 was recognized with a virtual ceremony in June of 2020, Saturday’s event was an opportunity for graduates to enjoy some of the traditional graduation fanfare in person, from donning the classic regalia of a cap and gown to partaking in a processional with flag bearers and university dignitaries, to listening to the sounds from the Stanford Jazz Ensemble.

For Sydney Rieckhoff of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who received a bachelor’s degree in international relations, it was also special to reconnect with her friends after two years apart.

“I think there’s something really cool about being able to see the last two years of growth everybody has gone through and the transformation they’ve undergone,” Rieckhoff said. “It’s special to be able to celebrate and come back together and be together in one place after we’ve all gone and lived our lives [separately].”

The day was also incredibly meaningful for the friends and family members who supported the Class of 2020 during their studies.

As James Pillot of Detroit, Michigan, who studied electrical engineering and received a BS in 2020 and MS in 2022, reflected: “This is a cool moment for me, but I think it’s more significant for my family to be able to come out because they really wanted to see this.”

Pillot said he was especially thankful for the personal support he received from the Stanford community over the past two years.

“Stanford is all about the people,” Pillot said. “The degree can mean a lot, but all the friends and people that you meet and the professors you get to work with are what matter. You can take all the people and move them somewhere else and it would still be Stanford.”

For parent Wendy Needels of Chico, California, who came with her family to see her son Jacob Needels graduate with a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics, it felt remarkable to finally be able to celebrate in person.

“Two years ago, a ceremony like this was unthinkable,” Needels said. “But today, to be here in person and to experience this – after he’s gotten his master’s degree – to be able to celebrate that with him and be able to travel here has meant the world to us. It kind of puts a cap on it – maybe a mortar cap! To see him cross the stage is priceless.”

The ceremony also included an invocation by Tiffany Steinwert, dean for religious and spiritual life, and a land acknowledgment with Class of 2020 alum Joseph Ironhawk Little. Colleen Hallagan-Preuninger, associate dean for religious and spiritual life, offered the benediction.

Provost Persis Drell presented the Gores, Dinkelspiel, and Cuthbertson Awards,

The Stanford Student Chamber Chorale performed “America, the Beautiful.”

Tessier-Lavigne also offered a recognition of their degrees.

“You have persevered through an extraordinary and challenging time,” Tessier-Lavigne said in the closing remarks. “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.”

Also invited to attend the Class of 2020 Commencement were graduates from the Class of 2021 who were unable to join last year’s in-person celebration. The Class of 2022 will be honored Sunday, June 12, with an address by Stanford alum, Netflix co-founder, and philanthropist Reed Hastings.

In addition to her roles at the NSF and NASA, Córdova has also served as president of Purdue University and the chancellor of the University of California, Riverside. Córdova earned a PhD in physics from the California Institute of Technology.

Watch the full-length video of the Commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020 on the Stanford YouTube channel.

Read the Commencement addresses to Class of 2020 from Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and France Córdova.