In his address at Stanford’s 132nd Commencement ceremony on Sunday, tennis legend and former Stanford student-athlete John McEnroe congratulated graduates and encouraged them to be open to the possibilities of the future.

“Life doesn’t always go as planned and sometimes you need to pivot,” he said. “The path you end up on can be better than anything you ever imagined.”

McEnroe was among the thousands of attendees who gathered at Stanford Stadium to honor the Class of 2023; another 6,250 viewed the event online. The celebration marked the conclusion of the academic year and a tumultuous educational experience for graduates, most of whom experienced the full breadth of the COVID-19 pandemic during their Stanford studies.

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Video by Kurt Hickman, Harry Gregory, and Stanford Video

Class of 2023 Commencement hightlights: Tennis legend and former Stanford student-athlete John McEnroe encouraged graduates to be open to the possibilities of the future.

Commencement opened with a formal procession and the Wacky Walk student tradition. The ceremony included performances by the Stanford Jazz Workshop Commencement Ensemble, the Stanford Chamber Chorale, and the Leland Stanford Jr. University Marching Band. It also marked the final Commencement for Persis Drell in her role as provost; she will step down from the position later this year and return to teaching.

In his remarks, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne commended graduates for their perseverance through the pandemic.

“Your time here has also laid a strong foundation for the lives and the careers you will build, as you leave this part of your education behind and move to the next step of your own journey,” he said.

Several members of the Stanford community were honored at Commencement, including the recipients of the President’s Award for the Advancement of the Common Good and the Cuthbertson, Dinkelspiel, and Gores awards. Students Jonathan San Miguel and Oscar Sura Jr., both of whom passed away in the last year, received posthumous degrees; San Miguel, a doctoral degree in physics, and Sura, a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Lessons from a champion

In 1978, McEnroe, who is the first professional athlete to deliver a Stanford Commencement speech, led Stanford to the NCAA tennis championship while winning the individual title. He left the university before graduating to turn pro, becoming one of the most successful tennis players ever. He later established a career as an author and actor, and currently stars in Netflix’s Never Have I Ever.

John McEnroe delivers the keynote address at Commencement.

John McEnroe delivers the keynote address at Commencement. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

In his address Sunday, he shared lessons he has learned throughout his life and career. He said that as a teenager, he was pressured to turn pro, but enrolled at Stanford, in part, because he wanted to compete on a team. “When you get those opportunities to be a part of something bigger than yourself, take them,” he said. “Succeeding as a team can be as fun as doing it alone.”

He added that winning isn’t everything and that success can often be isolating. He encouraged graduates to consider other ways of defining victory.

“The questions you have to answer are: ‘Am I getting better as a person?’ and ‘Is what I’m doing bringing me and the ones around me happiness?’ The answers will tell you whether or not you’re really winning,” he said.

McEnroe noted the pressures that often come in life and told graduates to learn to stand up for themselves, to be their own advocate, and to “pivot” to keep moving forward. He told them to not be afraid of failing because failure often leads to something special. For example, he recalled the disappointment of losing the 1980 Wimbledon finals to Björn Borg. But McEnroe later met Nelson Mandela, who said he enjoyed listening to the match on a radio while in prison on Robben Island.

“That we gave Mandela a brief respite from the excruciating hell of 27 years of political imprisonment meant more to me than any award I’ve ever won,” McEnroe said. “The lesson here is you don’t have to win to be part of something that is truly magical.”

McEnroe also told graduates to remain open and optimistic about the future. He said that as a young student and athlete, he was hyper-focused on his career and never imagined he’d have experiences like taking guitar lessons from famed musician Eddie Van Halen or launching a second career in the entertainment industry.

“Absolutely amazing things are going to happen to you that you can’t possibly fathom right now,” he said, adding that while professional pursuits are important, they’re not everything. “Everyone wants a great career, but don’t miss your life on the way to work. Work/life balance may seem impossible, but it’s worth pursuing.”

McEnroe said that life is often like a tennis match: Sometimes you win the point and sometimes it’s an endless rally that you lose. “Take your best shot and keep finding the courage to step on the court,” he said.

“Know that the real victory in life is the long game,” he added. “Measure your success by how much you evolve, not necessarily how much you win.”

Beyond the Farm

In his address, Tessier-Lavigne offered graduates three pieces of advice as they move beyond the Farm. First, he encouraged them to connect with others with empathy and humanity, including those with whom they disagree. He noted the divided world in which we live and the importance of hearing and understanding a diversity of perspectives.

“None of us knows it all. None of us has every answer, or is right on every issue,” he said. “To make real impact, you will need to engage in productive conversation and to find areas of compromise, even with people you strongly disagree with.”

He also called on graduates to continue following their interests and to remain open to new paths. “Don’t leave exploration behind you at Stanford,” he said “Dedicate yourself to continuing to learn and grow. It will lead you to surprising and inspiring places.”

Lastly, Tessier-Lavigne encouraged them to find their own way to make a difference in the world.

“Think about how you can use your talents not only to further your own career, but to make a difference for people beyond you,” he said.

Celebrating graduates

Graduates at Sunday’s ceremony reflected on the importance of reaching this important milestone following the disruption caused by the pandemic.

“It’s so weird to look back on it and realize that was only a few years ago, but we made it through,” said Ariana Davarpanah, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science.

George Wang, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in computer science, said the challenges he and his classmates faced offered opportunities for growth.

“It was a learning experience,” he said. “There were a lot of things that were difficult, but I think that I grew from that and [learned to] adapt to different circumstances.”

Family, friends, and other guests came to Stanford from across California, the nation, and the world to celebrate the Class of 2023. Kathryn Brown and her family traveled from nearby Moraga, California, to watch their son, Drakos Brown, receive his bachelor’s degree in economics and history. Brown said she was grateful for the supportive community he had during a turbulent college experience.

“I just have to thank Stanford, because every step of the way, my son, his friends, teammates, and classmates – everyone helped out so much and you just don’t find universities that are willing to go the distance for every single human. And that means a lot to me,” she said.

Commencement Weekend included numerous celebrations across campus, including Saturday’s annual Baccalaureate, and graduation ceremonies for numerous schools, departments, and affinity groups, including the first-generation/low-income (FLI) and Black student communities.

Class of 2023 snapshot

On Sunday, Stanford awarded 1,580 bachelor’s degrees, 2,503 master’s degrees, and 1,075 doctoral degrees to the Class of 2023. Of those students who received bachelor’s degrees, 279 graduated with university distinction and 315 graduated with both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree.

The graduating class includes 251 international undergraduates from 74 countries, and 1,634 international advanced degree students from 113 countries. Among the undergraduate class, 298 are first-generation college graduates.

Full-length video of the 2023 Commencement ceremony is available on the Stanford YouTube channel.