At Convocation, new undergraduate students urged to purposefully engage

By Kathleen J. Sullivan

At the 131st Opening Convocation Ceremony, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said the past year and a half have laid bare the many challenges the world faces – global disease, racial and economic inequities, misinformation, climate crisis – and the pandemic has revealed how much we must rely on one another to address our great challenges.

During the 131st Opening Convocation Ceremony, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne welcomed the newest and largest cohort of young scholars and their families and friends to the university. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

“Stanford was created to do just that,” Tessier-Lavigne said, speaking Tuesday to an audience of new undergraduate students and their families and friends during the hourlong ceremony, which celebrates the beginning of the academic year.

“Jane and Leland Stanford established this university in memory of their son to generate knowledge – not for its own sake, but for the benefit of humanity,” he said. “If we take anything from our experiences of the last year and a half, it should be to re-engage with the world and with one another with a renewed sense of purpose and with an urgency to make the most of the opportunities in front of us.”

Speaking at Frost Amphitheater, Tessier-Lavigne encouraged the Class of 2025 and transfer students – the largest incoming class in Stanford’s history – to spend their time in “deep and purposeful engagement” with their academics, their community and the wider world.

He strongly encouraged students in every discipline to participate in hands-on research, noting that research allows students to create satisfying partnerships with faculty members and offers the opportunity to make real contributions to human knowledge.

“Perhaps, more importantly, doing research will help you learn how to ask and answer precise questions and how to assess the strength and limitations of conclusions that can be drawn from the data you generated,” he said.

“In short, research will make you a better critical thinker, helping prepare you for the challenges the world will throw at you when you leave.”

Tessier-Lavigne noted that we continue to live in challenging times.

“But each of you is here at Stanford because we believe in your ability to rise to the challenge, to engage your curiosity, to engage with one another and to engage with our world, and to devote your energy, your enthusiasm and your talents to making it better.”

Students had walked across campus in groups from their residence halls, some dressed in matching t-shirts, and sat together at the front of the amphitheater. Guests filled the rows of seats toward the back. The audience was attentive and appreciative, frequently whooping and applauding, and laughing at humorous comments by speakers.

In addition to Tessier-Lavigne, the speakers also included Sreya Guha, a Stanford senior; Richard H. Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid; Sarah Church, vice provost for undergraduate education; and Mona Hicks, dean of students.

At the beginning of the ceremony, Brooke Schmoyer, a junior studying political science and psychology, presented the university’s land acknowledgment, saying:

“We recognize that Stanford sits on the ancestral land of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. This land was and continues to be of great importance to the Ohlone people. Consistent with our values of community and inclusion, we have a responsibility to acknowledge, honor and make visible the university’s relationship to Native peoples.”

Getting comfortable with being acomfortable

In her speech, Guha recalled feeling overwhelmed as a new student.

“My heart was beating fast with the excitement of what was to come – paving my own path, having independence and finally learning how to ride a bike,” she said.

“But at the same time, I felt overwhelmed and confused by the vastness of Stanford and how to navigate it. I didn’t really know how to get my head around the idea that this campus was going to be my home for the next four years.”

That began to change during her first quarter on campus when Guha took a class on growth mindset – a concept that suggests how people can improve certain skills or attributes through effort and persistence. She learned that developing a growth mindset involves doing things outside her comfort zone.

Guha decided to put the concept into practice to challenge herself at Stanford.

“In time, I learned to grow more comfortable,” she said, recounting the time she volunteered to moderate a roomful of people debating contentious issues as part of a political science class she took as a sophomore.

Last year during the pandemic, Guha became a resident assistant in Burbank Hall, a home for first-year students, because she wanted to share the “special awe and wonder of frosh year” and use her experience and knowledge to foster community and create a safe home.

“Every lunchtime conversation or late-night study session with residents in the Burbank library or staff meeting forced me to think differently or consider an opinion I had previously disregarded,” she said. “For every challenge I faced while staffing, I can also think of multiple moments of immeasurable growth, reflections and rewarding experiences.”

Guha said she has developed a stronger sense of self over the last three years by forcing herself outside of her comfort zone and defining her own values and priorities.

“It’s not necessarily an easy journey. It’s hard to leave your home and the comfort of everything being familiar. But it’s also intensely rewarding and exciting. And most importantly, you don’t do it alone. Stanford is a rich and vibrant mosaic knit together with each student’s distinctive story and experience.”

Celebrate perseverance

Richard H. Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid, said it was time to celebrate the perseverance of the 2,131 first-year students and 66 transfer students joining Stanford whose lives were disrupted over the last 18 months by the pandemic.

“The unknown has governed your lives,” he said. “And yet, you have persevered.”

Shaw led the entire audience in an enthusiastic call-and-response at the start of his address – “Go Stanford! Go Cardinal! Take that Pandemic!”

He shared a story of perseverance from an earlier time – Aaron Yazzie, ’08, a Navajo teenager who studied engineering at Stanford and landed a job at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he helped design tools for the robotic arm of the Mars Curiosity Rover and later, for the flight hardware of the Mars Perseverance Rover.

Shaw described the day Perseverance landed on Mars as “an extraordinary moment of success, inspiration and hope as we on Earth continued to battle COVID-19.”

Shaw said he saw the “heart and mind to dream big” in the admission essays written by students admitted to Stanford.

He said the new students come from 49 states – all save Maine – and 78 countries. Eighteen percent of the incoming undergraduates are among the first in their families to attend a four-year university.

“There are 10 military veterans among you and we salute you,” he said.

Shaw encouraged the new students to “hold on tight” to their new classmates.

“The friendships you forge here, at Stanford, in the crucible of the pandemic, will be with you as you persevere farther than you ever thought possible. Let the pure joy and achievement of Perseverance landing on Mars light your way. We are thrilled you are here.”

Be curious and explore

Sarah Church, vice provost for undergraduate education, said Stanford’s faculty and staff were especially excited to welcome new students, given the events of the last 18 months.

“But here we are at last, together, celebrating the pathways that brought each of you here, the potential you bring into this moment, as well as the opportunity to do each of these together as a university community,” she said.

Church, a physics professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, said she hopes students will invite faculty along on their academic journey.

“Ask questions,” she said. “We love questions! Share your ideas or your worries.”

Church said the time may come when students encounter academic challenges or confusion about which path is right for them. It’s something that happens to almost all students, she said, including herself when she was an undergraduate at Cambridge University in England.

“Be kind to yourself in these moments and understand that there are many resources on campus to help you navigate these typical bumps and barriers,” she said. “Do not hesitate to reach out for support.”

Church offered what she called “one key piece of advice” to new students: pace yourself.

“One of the best gifts you can give yourself and others is your time,” she said. “Use it to explore. Be curious. Take every opportunity to reflect on what and whom you care about as you embrace this incredible journey.”

Turning to the guests in the audience, Church had two messages: “job well done” and “it will be okay.”

“Your student is in one of the most caring, supportive, academically enriching and fabulously challenging communities that you could ever imagine,” she said. “Stanford is their home away from home – at least for the next four years – and we will do our best to carry on the tradition that you began, to keep your student’s growth and development, their happiness and well-being, front of mind.

Believe you belong

Mona Hicks, dean of students, said Stanford wants every new student to be “seen” in their communities, and to feel connected, cared about, accepted, respected and valued.

“We want you to be empowered to find fellowship with others where you can always find a sense of support and welcome,” she said.

Hicks encouraged the students to believe in themselves – “You are stepping into the world’s 1 percent at one of the finest universities in the world,” she said – and believe they have a purpose.

“Why believing that you have a purpose matters so much is because even when you do not believe in yourself and even when you may not believe you belong, you have to remember that you have a purpose,” she said.

“You will get through most situations that way. That will get you through this season of making new friends and trying to navigate this campus footprint. Believing you have a purpose will help make the day-to-day public health protocols seem small.”

Summing up her address, Hicks urged students to believe in themselves, believe they belong and believe that they have a purpose.

“And if you keep those three beliefs close to your heart, in the words of Kendrick Lamar, ‘we gon be alright.’ ”