John Hennessy at the podium at Convocation

President John Hennessy addressing new students and their families at Stanford's 125th Opening Convocation on Tuesday. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Convocation: What it means to be part of Stanford

Drawing on inspiration from some of the world's greatest leaders and thinkers, Stanford President John Hennessy urged incoming students to open their minds, expand their horizons and follow their passions during their time at Stanford.

Video by Kurt Hickman and Aaron Kehoe

Tuesday was move-in day for freshmen and transfer students at Stanford.

Inspired by great books and minds, Stanford President John Hennessy on Tuesday told Stanford's newest students that a college education is more than just preparation for a job – it is the foundation for lifelong learning, enrichment and curiosity.

Hennessy was one of several speakers at the university's 125th Opening Convocation who addressed a crowd of more than 3,500 on the Inner Quad – including 1,722 members of the Class of 2019 and 15 transfer students.

During the past 15 years, Hennessy, who is stepping down as president at the end of this academic year, often focused his Convocation address around his summer reading, which sometimes included books about historical figures. For this year's speech, the president chose insights from nine of those figures – Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Darwin, Nelson Mandela, George Washington, Peter the Great, Sara Josephine Baker, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and Steve Jobs.

Intellectual journey

In opening, Hennessy noted that some questions in the college world are timeless. "How do I find my passion?" "What am I really good at?" "How can I make the most of my time here?"

A young Theodore Roosevelt reflected on what it means to be a college student, Hennessy said. "He had two characteristics we value most in students: curiosity and a passion for learning. Indeed, his entire life was an intellectual journey, just as we hope yours will be."

Like Roosevelt, who experienced many ups and downs early in his adult life and became president after William McKinley's assassination, Stanford students must prepare for unexpected changes and twists in fate. "Opportunities rarely come on your schedule," Hennessy said.

He noted that an undergraduate education is much more than a ticket to one's first job. "It is an opportunity to develop skills as a lifelong learner. It is the foundation for your entire life."

Hennessy recounted Charles Darwin's relationship with John Henslow, a botanist and geologist who encouraged a young Darwin's interest in science. Stanford faculty, the president said, represent similar transformative figures for students.

"Alumni have told us that getting to know a faculty member was one of the most rewarding aspects of their Stanford experience. Our faculty have a passion for learning and a desire to share their knowledge. Get to know them outside of the classroom as well," said Hennessy.

Nelson Mandela is another beacon of inspiration for Hennessy. "A tale of resilience, determination and justice, his life story also has remarkable lessons about human relations," he said.

Hennessy said that when Mandela counseled fellow activists in prison, white jail keepers took notice and gradually became sympathetic to the cause of justice for black South Africans. He noted that Mandela wrote: "Familiarity … would not breed contempt, but understanding, and even, eventually, harmony."

At Stanford, the values of intellectual diversity and tolerance are prized, Hennessy said. When new students first arrive on campus, he said, they often encounter challenges to their preconceptions and belief systems. Over time, the key is to discover new understandings and appreciations for the pluralistic society in which we all live, he noted.

"The opportunity to learn from your fellow students is an important part of a Stanford education. Appreciating differences, ensuring equality and valuing others are characteristics this country needs," he said.

And, merit is the basis for recognition on campus, Hennessy said. "This is a community dedicated to the pursuit of truth, knowledge and understanding."

While students today are growing up in a time of rapid globalization and technological changes, it is important to learn from how others approached challenges, said Hennessy, who cited Steve Jobs as an example.

Jobs overcame several failures as a young person, but never lost his passion for changing the world, Hennessy pointed out.  He recalled that in Jobs' 2005 Commencement speech at Stanford, he said, "When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right."

So, Jobs decided to live a life he felt passionate about, the Stanford president said. In that 2005 speech, facing a cancer diagnosis, Jobs also told the Stanford graduates: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. … Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."

Hennessy implored the students to become enthusiastic members of the campus community.

"We ask you to have the determination and conviction to make these years the springboard to a life lived with passion and commitment," said Hennessy, touting the benefits of studying overseas, conducting research or participating in internships in Washington D.C. and New York. He noted the launch of Cardinal Service, an initiative that builds on the university's longstanding commitment to public service by weaving those experiences more deeply into the Stanford student experience.

'Stunningly diverse'

Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid, described the Class of 2019 as "superlative and stunningly diverse by all possible measures."

Stanford's newest freshmen represent 49 states and 66 countries. The largest contingent of first-year students – 32.9 percent – hails from California. About 12 percent are international students and U.S. citizens living abroad. Slightly more than half of the freshmen are male – 50.5 percent – while 49.5 percent are female. More than 95 percent ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Fifteen percent are first-generation college students.

Almost 36 percent of the incoming freshmen say they are interested in engineering; nearly 23 percent have an academic interest in the natural sciences; and 17.7 percent have expressed an interest in the humanities.

Shaw suggested students forge relationships with teachers and mentors on campus.

"One day, when you look back on your college years, you will remember those who so significantly and with care guided your way," he said.

'Embrace the crooked'

Harry J. Elam, Jr., Stanford's vice provost for undergraduate education, spoke of the late African American playwright August Wilson, who wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences about "takin' the crooked with the straights."  For some students, Elam noted, their paths may be direct, while for others, not so direct.

"Embrace the crooked. After all, Stanford's history is about taking the less predictable trail. We are different and encourage the unconventional, the mental bends that can turn us in remarkable new directions," said Elam.

Student Jordan Shapiro began his speech by recalling what he described as his first "rookie mistake" at Stanford. On his first day as a freshman four years ago, he lost his keys on the Inner Quad, where many members of the Class of 2019 were seated on Tuesday.

"But finding your place here is so much more than holding on to the keychain in your pocket. It's about holding on to your core values while letting go of your inhibitions just enough to explore the expansive resources all around you. Over the next years, Stanford will provide you the opportunity of a lifetime – the opportunity to forge your unique path," said Shapiro, who earned a bachelor's degree in bioengineering in June and is currently a graduate student in management science and engineering and in business.

 He encouraged the new students to get outside of their comfort zones.

"I studied Chinese language, art history, island biogeography and more. And, by being in such different contexts, I started to narrow in on who I was. I had gone from a lost freshman to Jordan, the globally focused, key-losing bioengineer," he said.