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Text of student Convocation speech by Chinemere Uche, ’23

Hello and good morning, President Tessier- Lavigne, Provost Drell, Vice Provost Church, Dean Shaw, Dean Hicks, faculty, trustees, and, of course, new first years, transfers, and families. My name is Chinemere Uche, a senior in the School of Engineering, and it’s my honor to be speaking to you today.

Take a deep breath in. And out. Take a look around, look at where you are. You’ve made it to Stanford! Congratulations on all your hard work that has led you here. What awaits you is a world of unique resources, cherished relationships, and, as I have come to find out, opportunities for growth as both a scholar and a human.

Backing up a bit, while I was growing up, my parents – like many Nigerian immigrants – encouraged my siblings and me to be the best that we could be, and to them, that meant attending the best universities. By the time I entered high school, I had already internalized this philosophy. I took each and every AP class I could, I held leadership positions in clubs, I worked to be a leader in my community, and I LOVED every part of it. I realized I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, but it was worth it; I got into my dream school. I walked into Stanford thinking I would push myself to do the exact same thing. If it worked before, it would work again, right?

Wrong. When COVID-19 hit and all undergraduates had to leave campus, I found myself with a lot more alone time than I expected or hoped for. With so much free time, I started to ponder what I really wanted for my life, and I recalled my time on campus as a Ernest Houston Johnson Scholar. The program commemorates Ernest Houston Johnson, Stanford’s first Black graduate in the class of 1895, and offers mentorship to Black frosh as they begin career exploration. I reflected on the guidance I received through this program and asked myself: what excited me intellectually? What did I want my life to look like?

As time passed, I understood that what I wanted was incompatible with the “work hard and then work harder” attitude that I was used to. At my core, I am opinionated and extroverted and experience-oriented. Up until then, I was ignoring my innate wiring to maximize results, and I knew I couldn’t go on like that anymore.

So, I hit reset. I changed my major to one that best complemented me and I found a program that allowed me to be every part of myself. The Stanford in New York program gives students the opportunity to live, study, and work in the city for a quarter. It was also the perfect opportunity to finally satisfy my itch from childhood; I grew up around cornfields. This was my chance to experience the big city. After applying and being waitlisted my sophomore year, I sought out mentorship from upperclassmen and professors who advised me in constructing a successful application for my junior year. I was learning how to seek out help.

When I finally touched down in New York City, I had no idea of the world it would open up to me. It was in New York where I commuted to and from my first real 9 to 5 and learned to find my place in a megacity of nearly eight and a half million people. It was in New York where I had my first class ever taught by an African professor, which was my first class where I was the only student. With Professor Chiseche Mibenge, I realized my passion for Human Rights through the experiential study of institutional responses to gender-based violence. And it was also in New York where I met Ben Allanson and Jon Blum, my two mentors, both Stanford alumni, who are helping me now strategize and prepare for my life after graduation. While I was learning and living in the big city, I could feel myself opening up even more to all the resources that Stanford University has to offer.

Now with my return to campus after nearly seven months, I’m still reacquainting myself with this place, but I have a better sense of myself and a new, more open mindset to carry into my classes, my connections with campus community centers, and the clubs I lead. Instead of pushing myself to “work hard, then harder” I’m now driven by passions that I’ve cultivated through new experiences and relationships. I am so excited to see what new adventures are ahead for my senior year!

My biggest piece of advice for you is this: you’re in college now, and you have the opportunity to set up the rest of your life with what you do in these next few years. It takes time to actively think about who you are, what you like, and what you want to do with your life. Don’t put pressure on yourself to have it all figured out now. Let yourself try different things, fail a few times, and have new experiences. Learn who you are and what you want, and then go get it!

Thank you very much for the opportunity to address you all today, and now it is my pleasure to introduce the President of Leland Stanford Junior University, Marc Tessier-Lavigne.