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Stanford Report, September 20, 2000

Freshman Convocation Address by John Hennessy

The following is the text of President John Hennessy's Speech at Opening Convocation Friday, Sept. 22, 2000

Parents and students of the Class of 2004: Good afternoon and welcome to Stanford University. Today, we celebrate the arrival of 1,681 new freshmen and transfer students. For each of you students, this is a moment that you will long remember, the beginning a new chapter in your life. Let me be one of the first to greet and congratulate you as you embark on this adventure. In the next four years, there will be times when you feel exhilarated -- and perhaps times when you feel a bit overwhelmed. But I promise you one thing: We will always do our best to challenge you to participate fully in your own personal intellectual journey and in the university's mission to create new knowledge and understanding.

Students, I hope you are proud of the accomplishments that have brought you to this important transition in your lives. I know that all of you have worked hard to get here, but let me start off the afternoon by also acknowledging the contributions of your parents, family members, teachers, mentors and friends who have supported you on your road to Stanford. Without them, the journey here would have been more difficult and less rewarding. In recognition of the tremendous support and encouragement you have received from these important people in your lives, let me invite our new students to show their appreciation with a round of applause.

Now, all of you students may be wondering just how it is Stanford chose you to be members of the Class of 2004. I know from Vice Provost Montoya that each year a fair number of you arrive at Stanford convinced that your admittance was some sort of freak accident. In fact, some of you may be saying to yourselves right now, "If I just keep a low profile for the next four years, maybe they'll never realize that they made such a big mistake." Well, let me be the first to assure you: Our admission office is one of the best in the country, and we don't make mistakes! So, please, everyone take a deep breath and relax.

To be sure, this was one of the most competitive years for admission in the history of the university, with less than one in seven applicants being admitted; clearly, this class is one of the most talented we have ever assembled. Academically, your credentials are stellar.

But academics is not your only area of achievement. Many of you have exhibited excellence in the performing arts, in music, drama and dance; others are authors. We have a variety of outstanding athletes in sports as varied as fencing, volleyball, gymnastics, track, horse wrangling and juggling. Others are budding entrepreneurs, and I'm quite sure they will carry on the Stanford tradition of starting up new companies and inventing cutting-edge technologies. And many of you have answered the call of community service and contributed the gift of your time and intelligence in service to a greater good.

Your class is also one of the most ethnically and geographically diverse we have ever admitted. You represent 985 different high schools, all 50 states and 38 foreign countries. I want to extend a special thank you to our new students from North Dakota, who helped us break a two-year 49 out of 50 record.

Your life experience, your ancestral heritage, your intellectual roots and your interests are incredibly varied. In fact, the number of students indicating interests in the natural sciences, in engineering, in the social sciences, and in the humanities and interdisciplinary studies is roughly equal. We value this diversity in cultures, backgrounds, intellectual interests and viewpoints and what it will add to the education of all our students during the next four years.

Although we carefully examined your scholastic achievements and extracurricular accomplishments during the admission process, your intellectual vitality is what sets you apart from so many of your peers. Some of you have shown that intellectual engagement by pursuing a single field of study; others engaged in a variety of scholarly activities outside of the classroom setting; still others have applied classroom studies to work in your community. However you have shown it, your love of learning -- that passion for new knowledge -- revealed you to us as the kind of student we most treasure at Stanford.

Of course, our choosing you was not the only important decision being made in the last few months. Each of you also made a choice: You chose Stanford. We will never know exactly why each of you made that decision, but I truly hope that primary among the many reasons was a belief that this is a university that will provide the intellectual resources and the collegial support for you as you embark on your intellectual journey.

If that was part of the reason for your choice, then I have good news for you -- you've come to the right place! Stanford is a university that embraces and supports intellectual exploration in so many ways that it's almost hard for me to limit myself in telling you about them. But it is getting a little late, so I will make an arbitrary decision. Since I have just become Stanford's 10th president, let me describe 10 ways that Stanford will support you in your love of learning and your intellectual journey.

If some of the ways that Stanford embodies this spirit of exploration are new to you, the next few minutes will provide you with advance notice about how to make the most of your time at Stanford. I also hope they will offer some insight into why I came to this campus 23 years ago and have made it my home ever since.

First: I hope you came to Stanford, in large measure, because of our superb faculty. In this past year, we hired 69 new faculty -- some senior distinguished colleagues who are leaders in their fields, some young assistant professors involved in the development of new fields, but all committed to the search for, and communication of, knowledge.

The best advice I can give you is to get to know this superb faculty. Attend a lecture on their research or seek them out during office hours. While I love giving an exciting lecture to a classroom of students, my greatest enjoyment comes when a student visits my office to talk about my research, to ask career advice, to talk about a topic that she is interested in or to seek help on some topic he cannot grasp. Remember that all of us on the faculty are here in large part because of the extraordinary students who are our partners in the exploration for knowledge.

Second: Your fellow students, with whom you will work, live and play, will contribute to your exploration. The opportunity to learn from others who are traveling companions in this journey is an important part of a Stanford education. Learn from your fellow students, just as we on the faculty learn from them!

Third: Stanford has made tremendous enhancements to undergraduate education that are designed to engage you more deeply during your freshmen and sophomore years. The cornerstone of these enhancements is the freshman seminar program. Freshman seminars provide the opportunity for students to meet in small classes with some of our most renowned scholars. Stanford will offer over 100 different freshman seminars this year. Every freshman will have an opportunity to enroll in one of these seminars. Let me give you a sample of some of the seminars we will be offering this year:

The Technical Aspects of Photography, taught by Nobel Laureate in physics Professor Doug Osheroff.

American Art and Culture in the Gilded Age, taught by Professor Wanda Corn, chair of the Art Department and nationally known for her work on the history of American art.

The Reform of Social Security, taught by Professor John Shoven, former dean of humanities and sciences, and author of The Real Deal: The History and Future of Social Security, a book I also recommend to the parents in the audience!

These seminars not only provide an opportunity for you to explore exciting topics, they also provide an avenue for you to get to know faculty -- personally. I encourage every student to take advantage of this opportunity.

Fourth: I hope you have found Stanford's strong commitment to a liberal education attractive. In 1997, when I was in my first year as dean of the Engineering School, I ran into an alumnus of our Medical School, whose son was a freshman at Stanford with a strong interest in engineering. We discussed what advice he had given his son about choosing among the universities that had offered him admission. In recommending Stanford to his son, he said: "I wanted my son to know who Thoreau was, and what he wrote about." This story, which I have repeated many times to prospective freshmen with interests in science and engineering, embodies much of what is at the core of a Stanford education: a strong and shared foundation in the humanities.

Fifth: Stanford offers abundant opportunities for honors studies, honors theses and undergraduate research, which will intensely involve you in the exploration for new knowledge. The opportunity to work on the cutting edge of a field with a Stanford faculty member who is not only an expert, but passionate about her chosen field, is a wonderful experience. For me, participating in research as an undergraduate led me from my major in electrical engineering to my graduate major in computer science, and also ignited a passion for being on the leading edge of discovery. This passion sustained me through my Ph.D. and continues to excite me after 23 years as a Stanford faculty member.

Sixth: The breadth of the institution provides you with the opportunity to go almost anywhere your journey may lead. I mentioned earlier that we had hired 69 new faculty this year; what I didn't say was that they were from 40 departments spread among art, music, English, history, economics, physics, computer science, biology, law, business, education and clinical medicine. Stanford's breadth provides you with the opportunity to find where your intellectual interests truly lie. There is similar breadth in our nonacademic activities, whether they be in the performing arts, in athletics, in the visual arts or in community service. Whatever your academic and extracurricular interests, you will find them well represented at Stanford.

Seventh: Our program in overseas studies can add an important dimension to your education at Stanford. Upon graduating, many of our students report that one of their most memorable experiences was the opportunity to spend a quarter at one of our overseas campuses. The Overseas Studies Program, which is celebrating 41 years of offering unique learning opportunities to students, currently includes nine different locations including Great Britain, France, Mexico, Chile, Russia and Japan.

Eighth: Stanford attracts scholars and leaders from all over the world to teach, to give lectures and to participate in the search for new knowledge and a better understanding of our world. Take the opportunity to learn and interact with these visiting leaders and scholars.

Ninth: I hope that the western pioneering spirit, the entrepreneurial spirit, which abounds at Stanford, will infect the way you approach your exploration. This spirit, which Jane and Leland Stanford both had when they migrated from the East Coast to California, and which helped give birth to Silicon Valley, infects most things we do. It encourages us to be bold in our endeavors, whether those efforts occur in the library, in the classroom, in a laboratory, in a theater or on an athletic field. I hope that you will catch this "infection" and let it affect your pursuits here.

Tenth: I hope that this beautiful campus in this beautiful part of the world will be a conducive place to undertake your intellectual journey. There are many locations on campus and off that provide an ideal space for contemplation, or an inspirational setting, or simply a lovely place to walk and get away from the frenetic pace of everyday life.

In addition to these 10 reasons for being at Stanford -- these 10 ways in which Stanford will foster your intellectual exploration -- let me remind you that we are all here, at what was once Leland and Jane Stanford's farm, because in the grief over the loss of their only son at the age of 15, they completely dedicated themselves to creating this university and to the goal of doing something for someone else's children.

Given that we have both made compatible decisions and you are at Stanford, what do we ask of you during your next four years?

Your acceptance letter is an invitation -- an invitation to join a community of scholars engaged in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. A community of scholars that operates under a fundamental standard dating back to 1896 and emphasizing personal integrity and respect for each and every member of the scholarly community and his contribution to our search for better understanding.

It is an invitation to spend the next four years of your life exploring your intellectual interests, finding what engages and excites you. I would encourage you undertake this pursuit with enthusiasm. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:

"Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with your might. Put your whole soul into it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic, be enthusiastic and faithful, and you will accomplish your objective."

I urge you to pursue your journey with all your energy, and I hope that you will find something that excites you and engages you so much that it will keep you up at night and get you out of bed early, even on the weekend!

I hope that you find a passion that matches your own talents, so that you may discover, as I did, something that you can pursue for the rest of your life with enthusiasm and joy.

Parents, Stanford will provide a variety of possibilities during the next four years, but only your children, as individuals, will be able to choose what excites them, what generates intellectual passion and engages their very able minds. It will have to be their choice, and I hope that you will support that choice.

So, if your daughter comes home and tells you that she wants to major in medieval history and philosophy -- recall that this double major was the undergraduate major of Carly Fiorina, the chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, the second largest computer company in the United States.

Students, while I cannot make any predictions about what paths you will each take in your journey at Stanford, I urge you to begin this process of intellectual discovery, just as Senator Leland Stanford urged at the opening day ceremonies for the first freshman class in 1891:

"Upon the individual efforts of each of you mainly depends his or her future success in life. A university may be founded for you; in it, you may study for many years, with all the advantages of learning, science and ingenuity of these days; you may be gifted with many talents, and yet your labor will be comparatively fruitless and later in life you may be failures, or you may go from here fully equipped to make your way through life with happiness to yourself and benefit to humanity. All that we can do for you is to place the opportunities within your reach; it rests with you to grasp and improve them."

I welcome all our new students and their parents, not just to the campus but also to the Stanford family. I hope that the next four years at Stanford transform your lives, just as it has transformed the lives of so many alumni. And, like many before you, I would like your time here to be just the beginning of a lifelong relationship with Stanford.

As I am sure you know, this is my first year as president, and I am especially looking forward to sharing my first year with the Class of 2004. Welcome to the Farm!