Leading a life filled with wonder for every moment life brings – from the prolific to the prosaic – was a theme that ran throughout Saturday’s Baccalaureate ceremony, Stanford’s a multifaith celebration for graduating students and their families and friends.

“My hope for you, as you leave this incredible place, is that you live your life with radical amazement. Every day,” said keynote speaker, Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, an innovative worship leader and the first Asian American to be ordained as a cantor or rabbi in North America. “Find it in the sublime and beautiful. But also in the quiet and mundane. And most of all, in each other.”

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Baccalaureate at Stanford is a celebration for graduating students that acknowledges the spiritual rewards of education.

Organized under the auspices of the Office for Religious Life, Baccalaureate is a student-led commemoration acknowledging the spiritual rewards of education.

After opening her remarks with a blessing from the Jewish tradition, Buchdahl began by saying she believed her invitation to speak was due to what she called “the worst day” of her life.

On Jan. 15, 2022, Buchdahl, who is senior rabbi at the Central Synagogue in New York City, received a call from a rabbi in Colleyville, Texas, telling her that he and three others were being held at gunpoint by a man who demanded the release of an inmate being held at a nearby prison. The gunman specifically wanted Buchdahl to bring the prisoner to the Colleyville synagogue within the hour.

Buchdahl felt powerless and burdened by a huge responsibility for the hostages’ lives. But she was also overcome by another emotion that day: a profound sense of awe.

“Now, rabbis are not usually in the hostage negotiation business,” Buchdahl said. “But we are in the awe business.”

Buchdahl recounted being amazed by the steadfastness of the rabbi who prevented the gunman from shooting for over 10 hours. She was also in awe of the selflessness of the hostages, who when the gunman said he would allow only one person to leave, gave the place to the one person unable to run. She was also struck by the one non-Jewish hostage who found humor in such a dire situation, who said: “‘If I get out of this alive, I’m definitely going to convert.’ ” Buchdahl was further stunned by the rabbi’s courage to throw a chair at the right moment to allow other hostages to flee.

While exceptional moments like this leave one completely in awe of one’s capacity to be brave, kind, and generous, so can everyday experiences.

“Even if you are in the ugliest place in the world – physically or emotionally – you can still summon these feelings, if you wake up to the fact that your very unlikely, beautiful existence is worthy of awe,” Buchdahl said.

Preserving through adversity

Buchdahl went on to recount her own personal history, including the tenacity of her own father who was Jewish and whose family fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. Her father was admitted to Stanford in the 1950s, a time when efforts were being made to limit the admission of Jewish students to campus. He paid for college through loans and the ROTC, the financial assistance program of the U.S. Army. Upon graduating, he was stationed in Korea, where he met Buchdahl’s mother.

Buchdahl talked about what it was like to grow up as a biracial, Korean immigrant with a Buddhist mother in a small Jewish community in Tacoma, Washington. She shared the prejudices she overcame in her own journey to become the first Asian American rabbi ordained in North America and the first woman to lead her congregation in its 180-year history. She said this was all possible thanks to the fearless leaders, policymakers, and activists who made sacrifices that enabled her to be where she is today.

“Every one of us owes our very being to those who came before us,” Buchdahl said. “We know that some of them are here with you now. Many more are not here, or nameless. But in this moment – you are the fulfillment of everything they ever worked for.”

Buchdahl concluded by urging Stanford students to look up, look around, and look inside.

“While the vastness of awe can make you feel small, it also calls you to transcend yourself,” Buchdahl said. “Remember: The greatest source of awe in the world is you.”

Living life in the now

Taking the stage after Buchdahl was graduating senior, Lusciana Gomez, who was selected from among 30 competitive and compelling submissions to deliver the Baccalaureate student reflection.

Gomez opened by sharing the excitement she felt the moment she received her acceptance letter into Stanford to when she first arrived on campus. But she said soon she found her enthusiasm fading as she went through the motions of everyday life, as if on autopilot.

LUSCIANA GOMEZ Biology, ’23 at Baccalaureate 6/17/23

Student speaker Lusciana Gomez encouraged her fellow graduates to appreciate the moments that each second, minute, hour, and week holds, giving examples from her own Stanford experience. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

She described how she was waiting for a big event to present itself – “that capital-S Something” – to mark the beginning of her life.

But Gomez realized she was already living it.

“The life that we’re living every day – the life we do live every day – it’s real life. It’s started,” said Gomez, who is graduating with a BS in biology and a minor in astronomy.

Gomez encouraged her fellow graduates to appreciate the precious moments that each second, minute, hour, and week holds.

To further emphasize the appreciation of time, Gomez gave examples from her Stanford experience to show the difference a year, down to a second, can make in one’s life.

“If you forget the value of a year, remember what it felt like to lose a year of our education to a pandemic,” Gomez said. “If you forget the value of an hour, remember the difference between enrolling in a 9 a.m. section and a 10 a.m. section. It’s huge, it’s huge! If you forget the value of a minute, remember how it felt when you tried to enroll in Social Dance but you logged into enrollment one minute late. Are you getting into Social Dance? No – all because of a minute.”

In closing, Gomez emphasized how every memory is the culmination of smaller moments.

“Every memory is an aggregate of the moments that led up to it,” Gomez said. “This moment is here today because of our successes – it’s here because we dared to stand up again after each failure. Our time is priceless. And our time is now.”