At the 126th Opening Convocation Ceremony held in the Inner Quad Courtyard on Tuesday, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne drew inspiration from an 1891 address university co-founder Jane L. Stanford wrote for the very first class of incoming students.

“She wrote: ‘There is only one failure for you and that is not to be true to the best you know,’” he said. “So I urge you to take that to heart: Be true to the best you know.”

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Stanford University 126th Opening Convocation Ceremony, September 20, 2016

Tessier-Lavigne said one of the greatest gifts Stanford will bestow on new students will be exposure to people from diverse backgrounds and to people with diverse points of view.

“As a result, you will be challenged by new ways of looking at the world that may be different than your own – often very different,” he said.

“Freedom of expression is one of the values we hold highest here, along with the importance of a community where everyone feels included and respected. The fact that we don’t shirk from addressing difficult issues, but that we do so in mutual understanding and respect, provides a powerful opportunity for you to examine humanity from all sides.”

Tessier-Lavigne was one of several speakers who welcomed new students and their families and friends to Stanford during Convocation, which inaugurates the new academic year. The ceremony also featured Debnil Sur, a senior majoring in computer science; Richard H. Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid; and Harry J. Elam Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education.

The speakers encouraged Stanford’s newest crop of scholars to get the most out of their university experience by taking chances, trying new things and not holding back.

Advice from a new president

Tessier-Lavigne, who took office Sept. 1 as Stanford’s 11th president, urged students to learn about anything and everything, since they may not know yet what will inspire them.

“When I started college I was sure I would be a mathematician or physicist, but I got exposed to philosophy and to biology, and now, 30 years later, I’ve built my career around neuroscience,” he said. “You also don’t know what might be helpful to you in the future. There’s a famous tale of Steve Jobs taking a calligraphy class on a whim, only to find years later that it helped him revolutionize desktop printing.”

Tessier-Lavigne encouraged students to “stretch themselves” by signing up for something that intrigues them – something a little beyond their comfort zones.

“When I was in college, I wanted to join the student newspaper but I lacked confidence about my writing, so I joined as a photographer, and only eased into writing over time with the support of other students,” he said. “It remains one of the fondest memories of my time in college, and the skills I learned have been really important to my later career, including giving speeches like this one.”

Tessier-Lavigne told students not to lose sight of the fact that they were enrolled in a great research university that offered opportunities not available at other schools.

“Undergraduates can engage in research in the museum, the field and the laboratory – and those opportunities include the arts, the humanities and social sciences, as well as the sciences and engineering,” he said.

Tessier-Lavigne also encouraged students to make a commitment to public service – on and off campus – through Cardinal Service and become part of a longstanding Stanford tradition of making a difference in the world.

He urged students to be optimistic and confident in their abilities.

“College can seem overwhelming at times, but we know you have what it takes to get the most out of it,” he said.

What are you interested in?

Reflecting on his undergraduate years at Stanford, Debnil Sur told new students that if he were in their shoes, he would do three things differently: think deeply about his interests, talk to lots of faculty and keep many doors open through coursework.

“To find my real interests, I worked on research projects under six different professors in four disciplines, from quantifying Congressional polarization using natural language processing to optimizing complicated linear algebra operations,” he said, reflecting on the intense intellectual journey he began his sophomore year.

“I took classes from seven departments, as diverse as materials science and religious studies. I talked to countless people for advice. I found a passion in public service, through coaching debate in East Palo Alto and helping found Stanford’s first computer science student group for social good. Plus, thanks to Stanford’s study-abroad opportunities, I studied theoretical math at Oxford, researched artificial intelligence in Scotland, and traveled around Western Europe along the way.”

Sur said the vast opportunities Stanford offers makes the university truly incredible.

“Nowhere else keeps quite as many doors open just enough,” he said. “Thanks to all that support, it’s totally okay to intellectually wander until you’ve found what feels right.”

Sur told new students that the most important question to ask as they begin their Stanford journey is “What are you interested in?”

“After all, the point of a Stanford education is not the major on your diploma,” he said. “It’s finding what makes you intellectually tick – the driving forces for a lifetime of living and learning.”

Welcome to the place you belong

Richard H. Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid, said Stanford chose incoming students for their unique combination of abilities, talents and qualities, and stories.

“When we reviewed your application, we listened for your voice, your individuality, your perspective, your life experiences, your sense of humor, your hopes and dreams and your heart,” he said.

“You cannot be typecast – except perhaps for the incredible potential you all share.”

Shaw said the Class of 2020 was “stunningly diverse by all possible measures,” with first-year students coming from all 50 states and 69 countries.

“Fifteen percent of you are among the first in their families to attend a four-year college,” he said.

Shaw said the transfer class of 39 students, the largest in recent years, includes seven military veterans.

He encouraged incoming students to welcome new voices, friends and mentors from all backgrounds and perspectives into their lives.

“You will be here with fellow students from all over the world who are from distinctly different life experiences and points of view,” he said.

“Be open, reach out, and connect with one another with humility and grace, and the parameters of family expand exponentially. These are the people who will be with you when you try something new and when you take on new challenges. They will be there for you when you succeed and when you wish you could have done better. They will help you become the person you want to be.”

Entering Stanford at a crucial moment in time

Harry J. Elam Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education, told incoming students they were entering Stanford at a crucial moment in time.

“A moment lifted by the highest possibilities and greatest hopes, but also a moment made keener and more poignant by the knowledge that the world stands on the precipice of certain change and unprecedented global challenges,” he said.

“Shaped by ongoing tensions between careful design and extraordinary innovation, Stanford, as you enter, now sits at the top of the academic world, almost by every measure. And you are entering it at a most auspicious moment – for you are the very first class under our new president.”

Elam said that no matter what the new era brings, he could assure them it promises new adventures, opportunities and experiences.

“Finding your purpose and path may at times be direct and other times may wind,” he said. “Stanford’s unique culture is one that embraces that uncommon, uncertain route. After all, Stanford’s history is about taking the less predictable trail. We are different. We encourage the unconventional – those mental bends that can turn you in remarkable new directions.”

Addressing parents, families and friends in the audience, Elam said that while it is never easy watching a child leave home for college, he wanted to ease some of their concern.

“Here, your students will be pushed, but appreciated,” he said. “They will face exceptional academic challenges, but also find unprecedented support. They will come to know new worlds, but also come into new knowledge of themselves.”