President John Hennessy welcomes new students to Stanford

Following is the text of President John Hennessy's Convocation address, as prepared for delivery on Sept. 15, 2009: 

Parents, transfer students and members of the Class of 2013: Good afternoon and welcome to Stanford University. 

Each fall as I prepare for Convocation and the arrival of a new class of Stanford students, I contemplate the message I want to deliver and look for inspiration, often among my recent reading. 

This summer, in preparation for my first trip to the Galapagos Islands, I read the first volume of Janet Browne’s biography of Charles Darwin, entitled Voyaging. Most of you probably know the basics of Darwin’s story: his voyage on the Beagle at the age of 22, the role of his observations in the Galapagos, and his eventual publication of On the Origin of Species more than 20 years after the voyage ended. 

What I found new and interesting in this biography was how Darwin’s experience and education had prepared him not only for his journey as a naturalist on the Beagle, but also subsequently as he developed the ideas that led up to his landmark publication. I also could not pass up the chance of using Darwin for inspiration in the year that marks both the bicentennial of his birth and the sesquicentennial of his famous book. 

From Darwin’s earliest days, he seems to have been preparing for what would become his life’s work. As a young boy, he developed a deep passion for science and the skills of a careful and thorough observer of nature, as well as an outstanding collector of beetles. Throughout his life, Darwin remained intellectually curious.

You, our newest students, have been selected not only because you have demonstrated your scholarly ability but also because of your intellectual curiosity. 

Like Darwin, who was a student at Cambridge University, you will have access to outstanding teachers and distinguished scholars. During his student years, Darwin met faculty members who not only taught him important new subjects but also served as mentors during his early years, and as scholarly colleagues and advisors during the later decades when he worked on his theories. 

During your time here, I urge you to follow Jenna’s [Student Convocation Speaker Jenna Nicholas] example and get to know our faculty. Alumni have told us that getting to know a faculty member personally was one of the most rewarding aspects of their Stanford experience, and the university has invested heavily over the past 15 years to create many opportunities for you to do so. 

Use every opportunity to discover why our faculty are passionate about their scholarly pursuits. While I love giving an exciting lecture to a packed classroom, my greatest enjoyment comes when students visit my office to talk about research, ask career advice or seek help on a difficult topic. 

Darwin spent many days and evenings during his time as a student in the company of Professor John Henslow, who introduced him to many other scientists and later recommended Darwin for the opening on the Beagle. Those encounters generated a passion for scientific inquiry and debate, as well as developed Darwin’s knowledge in biology and geology, both of which he would put to good use. 

Over the next few years you also will get to know students whose background, culture or beliefs are different from yours. You may find that your values and beliefs are challenged. I hope that you will discover a new understanding and appreciation of a pluralistic society and develop your skills in interacting with people quite different from you. 

Nowadays, we often talk about the need to prepare students to be members of a global community, but this need is not entirely new. In Darwin’s day, knowledge about different peoples and cultures was still limited but was about to grow rapidly, as travel became easier. Indeed, Darwin found a number of surprises as he visited native peoples in South America and the Pacific, encountered slavery and reconsidered his own cultural biases.

More than 150 years later, technology has vastly increased such global interaction. Isolation is not possible for any nation — physically, economically, environmentally or intellectually, and we must all be more knowledgeable of different cultures and societies. Stanford has been a leader in overseas studies for more than 50 years, and incorporating an overseas studies experience in your education will help prepare you to be a better global citizen. 

You have chosen to attend a university that is not only a great educational institution but also a great research university. At Stanford, you can take courses and attend seminars that explore the frontiers of fields where new knowledge and understanding are being created, and you can contribute to that process. 

For me, participating in research as an undergraduate led me from my major in electrical engineering to my graduate concentration in computer science, and it ignited a passion for being on the leading edge of discovery. Taking part in the creation of new knowledge is an immensely rewarding and life-altering experience.

The joy of discovery also had been part of Darwin’s life since he was a small boy, but it became paramount during his time at Cambridge and on his voyage, and it continued to inspire him as he analyzed his discoveries and formulated his theories. 

I encourage you to experiment and take intellectual risks. Challenge yourself with courses in disciplines that are new to you. And should you occasionally not succeed, do not become disillusioned. Use it as an opportunity to learn how to overcome adversity. The only people I know who succeed at everything they undertake are those who have been timid in setting their goals.

Going on the Beagle was a big risk for Darwin. He went, not as the appointed naturalist, but as an educated companion for Captain FitzRoy. Darwin effectively earned the position of naturalist by demonstrating superior skills.

Darwin also faced adversities; for example, he never overcame being seasick, and spent many hours below deck in his hammock. In fact, he seriously contemplated leaving the Beagle early on in his voyage while in the waters off Spain. But he persevered, and driven by the desire to explore and be on solid ground, Darwin traversed thousands of miles in South America exploring the fauna and the geology of Argentina and Patagonia. His observations of marine fossils thousands of feet above sea level helped solidify Charles Lyell’s theories about the changing landscape and the effects of geological forces.

Darwin’s geological observation of how land evolved over time eventually led him to ask: If the Earth can evolve why not its inhabitants? This theory, then called transmutation, was radical; the conventional wisdom was that the creator specifically designed each species for its environment. But the Galapagos Islands are a very dynamic environment, driven by active volcanic change, so Darwin asked the key follow-up question: If the land was changing, would not the flora and fauna have to change as well? 

The creatures of the Galapagos and the terrain they inhabited inspired Darwin. Even today, the Galapagos is a magical place with incredible species from marine iguanas to flightless cormorants to giant tortoises — each uniquely adapted to its environment and preserved by the isolation of the islands. If you ever get a chance to go to this remarkable place, my advice is simple: Do it! 

The search for knowledge, which inspired Darwin, continues at universities around the world. Today, you join a university community created and bound by a commitment to lofty ideals, a community of scholars dedicated to the pursuit of truth, knowledge and understanding. It is a community rooted in principles established by the university’s founders and early leaders: 

  • By Jane and Leland Stanford, who — after the tragic death of their only son at the age of 15 — founded this university to benefit other people’s children and, as it says in the founding grant, “to exercise an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.”
  • By Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, who chose the motto “The Wind of Freedom Blows” to remind us of the importance and privilege of free and open inquiry.
  • And by Stanford’s first faculty and students, who in 1896 created the Fundamental Standard, which emphasizes personal integrity and respect for each and every member of the scholarly community — a standard still in effect more than 100 years later. 

As you begin your time at Stanford and plan your years here, I urge you to remember that your undergraduate education is much more than a ticket to your first job. When Darwin went to study at Cambridge, he enrolled for a general arts degree with the idea that it would lead to further studies and eventually a career as a minister. Of course, his time at Cambridge and his interactions with Professor Henslow led to a lifelong career as a scientist. 

As it was for Darwin, your undergraduate education is an opportunity to develop the skills and passion for being a lifelong learner in areas related to and outside of your future career. It is the foundation not just for your first job but also for your whole life.

To the parents in the audience, I assure you that Stanford will provide your children a variety of possibilities for growing and learning during the next few years. But it is your children, as individuals, who will choose what excites them, what generates intellectual passion and what engages their very able minds. 

I hope that you will support their choices, and if their interests should change, keep in mind that Cambridge was not Darwin’s first college experience. He started at Edinburgh studying medicine, like his father and grandfather. But anatomy bored him and he disliked dissection. Much to the consternation of his father he left medicine and Edinburgh. Although medicine was a rewarding career for his father and grandfather, it was the wrong fit for Charles Darwin. 

Students, as you begin your time at Stanford, think about Darwin standing on the dock of the Beagle in England, contemplating the next five years, wondering what he would learn and discover. The voyage went far beyond his imagination, not just because of the lands the Beagle visited but also because Darwin was committed to making the most of the trip, and that trip transformed him.

I hope you will be similarly committed to the journey you are about to begin, and that your time here transforms your life just as it has transformed the lives of thousands of alumni before you. 

To all our new students and their families: Welcome to the Farm and welcome to the Stanford community.