Prepared remarks of President John Hennessy at Opening Convocation Ceremony on Sept. 18, 2012
Parents, transfer students, and members of the Class of 2016, good afternoon and welcome to Stanford University. Today, we celebrate the arrival of 1,768 new freshmen and 31 transfer students.
Dean Shaw spoke about the extraordinary talents of this class and why, after an intensive review process, we selected you, as an individual, to be a Stanford undergraduate.
In thinking about the start of a new school year and welcoming new students to Stanford, I have often turned to biographies that I have read over the past year for inspiration. This past spring I was on sabbatical, so I managed to catch up on a lot of reading. One of the books I decided to read was Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs. The book was the topic of discussion in many venues, and I had known Steve personally, so I decided to jump in and see whether Isaacson's words matched the portions of Steve's life that I knew about. I was impressed not only with the accuracy of the book but also with its unvarnished honesty. It is certainly a book worth reading.
I read biographies a lot, and I read them primarily to gain insights about leadership and living an impactful life, and Steve Jobs certainly led an impactful life. The book is a tribute to Steve's incredible passions: for excellence, for simplicity, and for a Renaissance-like concept of aesthetics, and there are excellent life lessons to be found in his commitment to these ideals. Most of all, however, the book is a story about how Steve overcame obstacles and found his own path through life. Those pieces of Steve's story are well told in his 2005 Stanford Commencement address, which remains, to my mind, one of the greatest commencement addresses of all time. In his address, Steve discusses three obstacles he faced: deciding to drop out of college, getting fired from the company he started, and facing a potential early death from cancer.
Steve's adoptive parents had only one high school diploma between them, but they had promised that Steve would get a college education. Unfortunately, Steve headed to college without a lot of thought about what he wanted from that experience. As he says in his address: "After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out."
I hope that as you prepared for this day, you took some time to contemplate what you are searching for in your undergraduate education. This doesn't mean that you need have a well-defined life plan that takes you from this day to the presidency of the U.S. or the IPO of the next Google. If you do, that's great, but you should be open to changing it, and, either way, you should appreciate that your undergraduate education should prepare you first and foremost to be a "cultured and useful citizen," a goal that Leland and Jane Stanford set for the university when they established it.
How can you maximize the benefits you will gain from your time at Stanford? I have several suggestions, based on my 35 years as a member of the Stanford community. First, get to know a faculty member; our professors have a passion for learning and a desire to share their knowledge with others. Alumni have told us that getting to know a faculty member personally was one of the most rewarding aspects of their Stanford experience.
Second, explore new directions and areas that interest you and broaden your education. In his Commencement address, Steve talked about sitting in just those courses that he was interested in, once he had decided to drop out as a formal student. One such course was in calligraphy, where he learned about proportional spacing in typesetting and about various fonts and readability; years later when the first Macintosh was being designed, Steve understood the importance of good typography and built it into the Mac, changing the personal computer forever.
One of the best ways you can explore new subjects and interests is through our Freshman Seminars program. Each seminar is led by a Stanford faculty member and enrolls no more than 16 students. This year there will be Freshman Seminars on topics from the graphic novel to jet engines, from the art of conducting to 21st-century physics, from racial identity in American politics to Buddhist meditative teachings. These classes are a wonderful opportunity to get to know a faculty member and a new subject. I think it's the kind of opportunity that Steve would have relished.
Get to know the faculty outside of the classroom as well – use every opportunity to discover why they are passionate about their scholarly pursuits. While I love giving an exciting lecture to a packed classroom, my greatest enjoyment comes when a student visits my office to talk about research, ask career advice, or seek help on a difficult topic.
Third, one of the most incredible assets you have for learning and growing as a person are your fellow students. Over the next few years, you will get to know many students whose experience, 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 our pluralistic society and develop your skills in interacting with people quite different from you. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to learn from a group of very talented and capable people: the Class of 2016!
Last, you have chosen to attend a university that is not only a great educational institution; it is also a great research institution. I encourage you to take advantage of that. Take courses and attend seminars that explore the frontiers of fields where new knowledge and understanding are being created. For me, participating in research as an undergraduate led me from my major in electrical engineering to my graduate major in computer science, and it ignited a passion for being on the leading edge of discovery. This passion sustained me through my PhD and continues to excite me after 35 years as a Stanford faculty member. Being at the forefront of discovery and taking part in the creation of new knowledge is an immensely rewarding and life-altering experience.
Earlier, [student speaker] Morgan [Duffy] talked about the importance of encouragement and inspiration. At Stanford, you can find that from a faculty member, from a fellow student, from a course, or from a unique Stanford experience in community service, in overseas studies, or in undergraduate research. The important thing is to be open to such opportunities.
Steve went on to describe a second major crisis in his life: 10 years after starting Apple and introducing the revolutionary Macintosh, Steve Jobs was fired by the CEO he had helped hire and from the company he had founded! During the years that followed, he started NeXT, spun Pixar out of Lucasfilm as a new startup and continued his work. The important insight is that Steve didn't take his firing at Apple as a reason to retire from life, although he could financially have afforded to; he got back into the race.
During your time at Stanford, you will face new hurdles and challenges. You will not always be the most talented person in every class and you will likely encounter subjects that you find truly difficult. I encourage you not to shrink from these hurdles, but 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 – just be sure to learn from your mistakes.
Although NeXT was never the success that Steve had hoped for, it developed a new operating system, which eventually led to the acquisition of NeXT by Apple and his return to the company he loved. And, Steve led Pixar to reinvent itself as an animation company, and in the process, invent modern computer-based animation. So by all means experiment, but do not hesitate to ask for a little guidance and advice along the way. And, remember, as Steve said: "Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith."
Steve's last story concerned facing his cancer diagnosis and possible early death. He began with the following: "When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right."
He continued: "It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."
Steve described his conviction to live a life he felt passionate about, and how facing the cancer diagnosis simply reinforced his determination to make the most of his life. As he told the graduates on that day in 2005: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. … Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."
As you begin your time at Stanford and plan your four years here, I would urge you to remember that your undergraduate education is a foundation for life. It is a once-in-a-lifetime journey. It is much more than your ticket to your first job. It is an opportunity to develop the skills and passion for being a lifelong learner in areas related to and outside of your future career.
So, our request is simple: We ask that you become an enthusiastic member of this academic community. We ask you to take advantage of this opportunity: to have the determination and conviction to make this next four years the springboard to a life lived with passion and commitment.
Most important, don't settle! Find something you love doing; you will be better at it and the challenges that await you later in life will be easier. Ask your parents for their insights and guidance, but remember it is your passion you need to discover; your parents already have theirs!
Finding that passion and developing a talent for it was what made Steve Jobs' contributions so remarkable.
I welcome all our new students and their parents to the Stanford family. Students, I hope your time here transforms your lives, just as it has transformed the lives of so many alumni. And, finally, I hope your time here will help to provide a foundation on which you will make your contributions to a better future for yourselves and the generations that will follow.
Welcome to the Farm and welcome to the Stanford community.