Senior tells new students about her Stanford epiphany

L.A. Cicero Student Jessica Anderson speaking at Opening Convocation

Senior Jessica Anderson was among the speakers at the 123rd Opening Convocation Ceremony.

Stanford senior Jessica Anderson had a loud and clear message for fellow students during last week's Convocation officially opening the academic year. Singing a capella, she told them: "Be yourself, play it loud. Raise your voice, shout it out."

The musical message she shared with new students and their families reflected her own, lonely experiences three years earlier when she was new herself. She felt different.

"Belonging is hard when you feel that your presence is unjustified," the Chicago native told more than 1,700 freshmen and transfer students. "I felt like my race, class and religion alienated me from the sea of faces around me."

So Anderson sang to belong. In fact, as she sat in "the very last row in the very last seat in my section" at her own Convocation, she thought that maybe – just maybe – she might be selected to sing at the ceremony someday. She never imagined she would be selected speaker.

Anderson's is the quintessential Stanford story. She embraced the opportunities the university offered to find her passion for education and community service.

Her work and service helped earn the senior African and African American Studies major a prestigious Truman Scholarship. The scholarship provides up to $30,000 for graduate study to college juniors with "exceptional leadership potential" who are committed to careers in public service.

Her change in perspective was the result of an epiphany. One day, she overheard an admissions officer assuring a group of students that they all had something to offer and all deserved to be at Stanford.

And so, Anderson began to discover her own many voices.

She applied for and was accepted to the Bing Stanford in Washington Program, where she learned she could use education reform to strengthen the academic experience of others. She began tutoring students and interned at the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. She studied in South Africa and taught math and social science to eighth- and ninth-graders at the Centre of Science and Technology.

In Chicago, she worked at the Mikva Challenge, a civic literacy nonprofit, and helped students urge Mayor Rahm Emanuel to start an initiative to offer free fares on city buses to low-income students.

But she didn't lose her love of music.

At Stanford, Anderson co-founded the Chicago Collective, an Afro-Jazz fusion group, appeared as Celie in The Color Purple: A New Musical and directed the Stanford Gospel Choir. She is now writing and producing a musical that will debut at Stanford in the spring.

With her Truman Scholarship, Anderson will pursue a master's degree in education leadership. Her goal is to help transform the educational system in her hometown.

"A world of opportunities awaits you," she told Stanford's new students. "Do not miss them, believing that your voice is not strong enough, is not sure enough, is not like everyone else's. You have the right to use your voice – every voice within you."