Convocation speakers urge new Stanford students to be open to discovery and reinvention and to find their voices

President John Hennessy was one of several speakers who welcomed new students and their families to the Stanford community during the Opening Convocation Ceremony. The event also featured senior Jessica Anderson; Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid; and Harry J. Elam Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education.

Drawing inspiration from the life of Peter the Great, who explored the societies of the modern world to the west in his quest to transform medieval Russia into a modern, scientific, European-oriented country, President John Hennessy urged new students Tuesday to investigate new subjects and interests during their time at Stanford.

"We ask that you become an enthusiastic member of this academic community," Hennessy said. "We ask you to take advantage of what Stanford will offer – to have the determination and conviction to make these next years with us a springboard to a life lived with passion and commitment."

Hennessy was one of several speakers who welcomed new students and their families to the Stanford community during at the 123rd Opening Convocation Ceremony, which inaugurates the academic year. The ceremony, held in the Main Quad, also featured Jessica Anderson, a Stanford senior; Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid; and Harry J. Elam Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education. Each speaker encouraged new students to explore the wealth of opportunities and experiences available to them at Stanford.

Hennessy, who recently read Peter the Great: His Life and World, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Robert Massie, before a recent trip to St. Petersburg, said the Russian Tsar foresaw the importance of creating both a navy and a merchant fleet in a country that had rarely ventured on the open seas. But Peter the Great knew Russia lacked the skills needed to build ocean-going vessels.

"So he spent several months in Holland, learning how to construct a ship, by actually building one," Hennessy said. "There, the Tsar of Russia engaged in manual labor, learning how to use axes and chisels and hammers to build a ship. It was there that he learned the skills he later needed to oversee the construction of Russia's first large-scale boatyard."

New students have many venues for such "experiential learning" at Stanford, Hennessy said, through service-learning projects at the Haas Center for Public Service, international travel opportunities offered by the Bing Overseas Studies Program, getting involved in undergraduate research, and through a variety of courses – from the arts to engineering – that teach and develop creative opportunities.

"The important thing is to be open to such possibilities," he said.

Hennessy also encouraged new students to get to know professors – inside and outside the classroom – and to take advantage of the unique opportunity to learn from a group of very talented and capable people – their fellow students.

Other voices

Student speaker Jessica Anderson began her Convocation address singing a cappella: "Be yourself, play it loud. Raise your voice, shout it out."

Anderson said that when she arrived at Stanford, she was a singer with four musicals under her belt and a diverse repertoire of songs. She assumed that singing was the only way she could forge an identity for herself on campus.

"It would help me belong," she said. "But belonging is hard when you feel that your presence is unjustified. I felt like my race, class and religion alienated me from the sea of faces around me. So I sang to feel connected to the Stanford community."

Anderson said she sang day in and day out.

"I sang as if it was all I was, but that was not enough," said Anderson, a senior a majoring in African and African American Studies and a Truman Scholar.

One day, she overheard a Stanford admissions officer tell a group of students: '"Let me reassure you all of something. You deserve to be here. Not only do we believe that we have something to offer you, but we also know that you have something extraordinary to offer us. Let's discover what all those things are together.'"

Afterward, Anderson wondered what other "voices" she could have at Stanford and what other "extraordinary things" she had left to discover on campus.

She joined the Bing Stanford in Washington Program, where she learned she could use education reform to strengthen the academic experience and voices of others. She tutored students through the Haas Center and served as an intern at the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.

"I began to find ways to use my voice to raise other voices," she said. "And all the while, I continued singing when and how I wanted to. I found a way to embrace all of my voices."

Anderson urged the incoming students not to miss out on the opportunities that await them, mistakenly assuming that their voices are not strong enough.

"Your voice is as powerful as the next and it has a place here – on the Mock Trial team, in the Spoken Word Collective, on the football field, or in the Mechanical Engineering Department. So create your stages. Find your mics. And raise your voices.

Opportunity as limitless as curiosity 

Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid, said the stories students told in their applications revealed who they are and who they hope to become.

"We saw the potential for you to travel and to explore – impossibly far – over the next four years and beyond," he said. "At Stanford, the opportunity for distance traveled is exponential. The freedom of opportunity is as limitless as our ever-expanding universe and your own intellectual curiosity."

To illustrate, Shaw told the story of Aaron Yazzie, '08, a mechanical engineer who works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Yazzie designed tools for the robotic arm of the Mars rover "Curiosity" that allowed it to collect and analyze samples from the surface of the planet. Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, was designed to assess whether the red planet ever had an environment capable of supporting small life forms.

"Scientists concluded that Mars once had the potential to support microbial life," Shaw said. "The scale and import of this discovery is just plain thrilling, and Aaron played a crucial role in the work accomplished by the Mars project team."

Shaw said Yazzie graduated from high school in Holbrook, Ariz., a city of 5,800 residents that is considered the seat of Navajo County and the gateway to the Petrified Forest National Park.

"It was about as far as you could get from NASA and a Jet Propulsion Laboratory, not to mention the planet Mars, which at its closest point is 33 million miles from Earth," he said. "For a young Native American student, the distance between the two-stoplight town of Holbrook and Stanford University might well have been just as far. But Aaron Yazzie was talented. He had a puckish smile and a cheerful outlook and a capacity to dream big. He was encouraged to apply to universities outside of Arizona. He took a chance on one, and four years later graduated with a Stanford degree."

Shaw said Stanford's new students would travel the farthest – perhaps even to the planet Mars – if they follow the curiosity that dwells in their hearts and minds.

"Discover what makes you happy and follow your heart," he said. "We are thrilled you are here, and we can't wait to read the next chapter of your story."

Not a one-size-fits-all adventure

Harry J. Elam Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education, told the new students to expect a "transformative adventure" that can and will take them to new intellectual heights, and expose them to fresh territories for introspection and reflection.

"The limits of your expedition extend well beyond the classroom, for what happens on the playing fields and in the laboratories, on theatrical stages and in the dormitories, on community-based research and in music rehearsal rooms is critical to the processes of learning here at Stanford," he said.

"Without doubt, this is not a one-size-fits-all adventure; no need to walk in someone else's shoes. Rather, you will be able to find your way to innovation, whatever your major, to discover new directions, according to your compass. This is an education steeped in tradition, but focused on the future, rich in breadth of possibility and committed to rigorous concentrated study. This is Stanford."

Elam said new students will discover that Stanford combines the experience of a small college with the rigorous critical engagement of a large research institution.

"From Day One, you will have the possibility of working closely with our world-class faculty members, not simply in learning but in the production of new knowledge," he said. "For we have also been optimistically anticipating the ways in which you will challenge us and promote new thinking. Stanford is a school that cultivates truly new ways of thinking, and makes unprecedented investments in education."

He said Stanford's "intellectual secret sauce" combines tradition and reinvention.

"For us, diversity, I mean diversity of all kinds, is not a catch phrase, not a cliché, but a fundamental educational practice," Elam said. "We realize that difference is critical to excellence. That inclusive pioneering spirit and entrepreneurial energy that founded this university more than 120 years ago still characterizes it today. This is Stanford, a place where your individual dreaming can lead to world-changing realities."

Addressing the new students directly, Elam said: "To our new and treasured students, this is your moment and this is your Sanford. Embrace it, enjoy it, relish it, make it your own, and do not hesitate to let it remake you as well. For rest assured, Stanford will change you. And in turn, all of you will make Stanford a better university. All of you are now Stanford."