John Etchemendy, Felipe Calderón and John Hennessy

Mexican President Felipe Calderón, center, enters Stanford Stadium with Provost John Etchemendy, left, and President John Hennessy. (Photo by L. A. Cicero)

Mexico's president tells Stanford grads: 'You must never, ever give up' on ideals

"Man's power to create is bigger than his power to destroy," said Mexico's Felipe Calderón during Stanford's 120th Commencement. He urged young people to bypass the false dichotomies that pit environmental reform against economic growth.

Steve Fyffe

On Sunday, Stanford conferred 1,720 bachelor's, 2,167 master's and 1,054 doctoral degrees.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón urged graduating students to "do what so many said was impossible" during Stanford University's 120th Commencement on Sunday in Stanford Stadium.

Calderón's visit took place under tight security and with a large contingent of Mexican journalists. Calderón is known internationally for his fight against drug cartels, an effort that has cost many lives. Within Mexico, however, he is also known as a champion who has taken on the tax system, the judicial system, arms control, and financial and immigration reform.

But his advice about tackling the impossible could have described his own career even further back, beginning when he was 12 years old. Stanford President John Hennessy told the crowd that Calderón had listened in class as his peers described their modest ambitions, while Calderón announced that he was one day going to be "president of the republic." He achieved that goal in 2006, when he was 44 years old, in the party his father helped found.

"Many among you will be successful men and women, lawyers and writers," Calderón said. "But beyond becoming a great doctor or engineer, the key to life is to graduate as a human being.

"This is the question you must ask now: Do you want to be a person who does not leave a mark or, like Gandhi said, to become the change you want to see?

"Find the reason you are here, now, in 2011," he exhorted the crowd of nearly 30,000. He urged students to define their ideals and "fight for them with all your heart – no matter how high they seem."

He suggested many roads that idealism might travel in a world of "insatiable greed."

"The list is really long," he said, citing crises in climate change, human rights, poverty, organized crime and illegal drugs.

He recalled that 40 years ago, the Club of Rome published its controversial The Limits to Growth, perhaps the best-selling environmental book in history, with 12 million sold in 30 translations. The report claimed that humankind was at a turning point, careening toward environmental cataclysm while also building a widening economic gap between north and south, rich and poor.

"Today those two challenges are still there, and they constitute a serious threat," the president said. And too often, he added, they are pitted against each other in a false dichotomy.

L. A. Cicero Felipe Calderon with students

Mexico's President Felipe Calderón took time after the Commencement ceremony to address and take photos with some of the Mexican students graduating from Stanford.

"It is possible to prevent climate change and foster growth simultaneously," he said, noting Mexico's initiatives to protect forests and other resources while generating income for families.

Calderón was the second sitting president of a country to speak at Stanford Commencement. Alumnus Alejandro Toledo, then the president of Peru, spoke in 2003. Alumnus Herbert Hoover spoke twice, once before he was president and once after.

On Sunday, Stanford conferred 1,720 bachelor's, 2,167 master's and 1,054 doctoral degrees. Among the bachelor's degrees, 365 were conferred with honors and 273 with university distinction; 101 students had completed the requirements for more than one major; 33 were graduating with dual bachelor's degrees.

Among international students, 111 undergraduates represented 42 countries, while 979 graduate students were from 82 countries.

A number of the students appeared to have Mexican roots and cheered Calderón's speech, especially when he congratulated graduates in Spanish.

Calderón leavened his inspirational message with a personal anecdote.

Born in the western state of Michoacán, he recalled the Mexico of his childhood, when all senators and governors came from the same party, and what he characterized as an authoritarian and repressive government determined not only what to teach in schools but even what rock concerts would be performed.

"When students protested, they were massacred," he recalled. "Many opponents disappeared."

Nevertheless, he said, hope stayed alive and a "determined and peaceful struggle" continued.

Calderón was the youngest of five brothers; his father, the late Luis Calderón Vega, was co-founder of the National Action Party and a political figure in his own right. The Mexican president recalled his father's "heroic and utopian crusade." Even as a child, Calderón passed out leaflets, chanted slogans and otherwise participated in the party's activities.

"One day I said, 'Enough!'" he said. "Our efforts were useless." He confronted his father, who told him, "I understand your anger, but we are doing this because it is the right thing to do.

"We may never see somebody from our party become president," his father continued, but the only way forward is "to appeal to the people's conscience."

"I think I never thanked him enough for his advice," Calderón said. "Because I cannot tell him personally, I'm telling you instead.

"You must never, ever give up. Fight for something you can bequeath to those behind you," he said.

"Man's power to create is bigger than his power to destroy," he said. "Don't be afraid of sailing against the wind and avoiding the waves of mediocrity."

In concluding, he offered a final piece of advice: "Enjoy life. Actively seek happiness."

Then he cited the Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy's famous poem "Ithaka":

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

In a longstanding tradition, the Commencement ceremony opened with Stanford's version of the graduate procession. The "Wacky Walk" featured a forest of palm trees; a shark with other graduates dressed as waves; a caterpillar-style Chinese dragon; a lobster; a dog with dogcatchers and a canine control truck; women in superwomen costumes; and a group of men in bathing suits – or was it underwear? A formally dressed group of young men did silly walks that Monty Python would have envied. Others sported togas and top hats, while still others donned stars and stripes. Many carried signboards with their Twitter handle.

One carried what was truly a sign of the times: Written were two eloquent words – HIRE ME.

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,