Prepared remarks of President John Hennessy at Freshman Convocation

Thank you, Zev, for that wonderful and inspiring message.

Parents, transfer students, and members of the Class of 2014: Good afternoon and welcome to Stanford University.

Each fall as I prepare for Convocation and the arrival of a new class of Stanford students, I contemplate the message I want to deliver and look for inspiration, often among my recent reading. This past spring I saw the movie Invictus, which tells the story of Nelson Mandela's early days as the first democratically elected South African president and his support for the South African rugby team, which overcame tremendous odds to win the World Cup in 1995. The movie, which I thoroughly enjoyed, inspired me to read Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

In his book, Mandela writes about realizing the importance of education in liberating his people, and the tremendous negative impact they suffered from not having equal access to education and funding. He writes:

"Education is the great engine of development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, and that the child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation."

You, our newest students, will have access to the resources of a great university and to its teachers and distinguished scholars. It is an opportunity and a responsibility. I urge you to use this opportunity to the maximum. Get to know our faculty; they have a passion for learning and a desire to share their knowledge with others. Alumni have told us that getting to know a faculty member personally was one of the most rewarding aspects of their Stanford experience, and the university has invested heavily over the past 15 years to create many more such opportunities.

A hallmark of our innovations in undergraduate education has been the Freshman Seminar program. Each seminar is led by a Stanford faculty member and enrolls no more than 16 students. This year there will be Freshman Seminars on topics from biotechnology to the welfare system, from Mozart's operas to horse medicine. These classes are a wonderful opportunity to get to know a faculty member and a new subject.

Get to know the faculty outside of the classroom as well — use every opportunity to discover why they are passionate about their scholarly pursuits. While I love giving an exciting lecture to a packed classroom, my greatest enjoyment comes when a student visits my office to talk about research, ask career advice or seek help on a difficult topic.

Over the next few years, you will get to know many fellow students whose background, culture or beliefs are different from yours. You may find that your values and beliefs are challenged. I hope that you will discover a new understanding and appreciation of a pluralistic society and develop your skills in interacting with people quite different from you.

As Mandela counsels some of his fellow activists in prison, he comes to know a number of white jail-keepers reasonably well, and they become sympathetic to the cause and see the injustice perpetrated by both apartheid and the imprisonment of the activists. Mandela writes:

"This is precisely why the National Party was violently opposed to all forms of integration. Only a white electorate indoctrinated with the idea of a black threat, ignorant of African ideas and policies, could support the monstrous racist philosophy of the Nationalist Party. Familiarity, in this case, would not breed contempt, but understanding, and even, eventually, harmony."

Throughout his autobiography, Mandela remains committed to the service of his community, and through that service he comes to many new insights. I encourage you to consider the opportunity to learn through service as one vehicle for broadening your experience. Stanford's Haas Center is one of the oldest centers for public service in any college or university. It offers hundreds of opportunities for you to learn and contribute to the local community, as well as internationally.

Nowadays, we often talk about the need to prepare students to be members of a global community and to prepare themselves to live in a world that is increasingly interconnected. When Mandela was a boy and began attending school, he was taught the superiority of British ideas, culture and institutions. His perspective on both the world and his own culture suffered.

Now, 80 years later, the Internet has vastly increased global interaction as well as our knowledge of societies around the world. Isolation is not possible for any nation — physically, economically, environmentally or intellectually. Stanford has been a leader in overseas studies for more than 40 years, and incorporating an overseas studies experience in your education will help prepare you to be a better global citizen.

Mandela was ambitious for change in South Africa, and he saw his long walk to freedom as a lifelong effort for which he focused on preparing himself, not only as a young man, but also during his 26 years of imprisonment. The four years that most of you will stay will go quickly, and I urge you to make the most of this time.

You have chosen to attend a university that is not only a great educational institution but also a great research institution. At Stanford, you can take courses and attend seminars that explore the frontiers of fields where new knowledge and understanding are being created, and you can contribute to that process. For me, participating in research as an undergraduate led me from my major in electrical engineering to my graduate major in computer science, and it ignited a passion for being on the leading edge of discovery. Being at the forefront of discovery and taking part in the creation of new knowledge is an immensely rewarding and life-altering experience.

Real growth involves not only risking failure, but also overcoming adversity. In launching his freedom campaign, Mandela was aware of the risks he faced, and when he was arrested, he faced the challenge of finding a way to remain committed to the freedom struggle during his many years in prison.

You will certainly face intellectual challenges during your time here at Stanford, but I encourage you to experiment and take intellectual risks. Challenge yourself with courses in disciplines that are new to you. And should you occasionally not succeed, do not become disillusioned. The only people I know who succeed at everything they undertake are those who have been timid in setting their goals.

A cornerstone of Mandela's efforts to bring about a democratic South Africa was to develop a set of ideals, inspired by the Declaration of Independence, and other statements of a community's highest principles. The Freedom Charter, which he helped draft, opens with the following words:

"We, the people of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: That South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people … "

Today, you join a university community created and bound by a commitment to similar lofty ideals, a community of scholars dedicated to the pursuit of truth, knowledge and understanding. It is a community rooted in principles established by the university's founders and early leaders:

  • By Jane and Leland Stanford, who — after the tragic death of their only son at the age of 15 — founded this university to benefit other people's children and, as it says in the founding grant, "to exercise an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization."
  • By Stanford's first president, David Starr Jordan, who chose the motto "The Wind of Freedom Blows" to remind us of the importance and privilege of free and open inquiry.
  • And by Stanford's first faculty and students, who in 1896 created the Fundamental Standard, which emphasizes personal integrity and respect for each and every member of the scholarly community — a standard still in effect more than 100 years later.

As you begin your time at Stanford and plan your years here, I urge you to remember that your undergraduate education is much more than a ticket to your first job. Mandela's law studies prepared him for a life of work with his fellow activists, helping to educate them and prepare them for their many struggles; his education also prepared him to be an effective advocate for change when he was eventually released from prison. Likewise, your undergraduate education is an opportunity to develop the skills and passion for being a lifelong learner in areas related to and outside of your future career. It is the foundation not just for your first job but also for your whole life.

To the parents in the audience, I assure you that Stanford will provide your children a variety of possibilities for growing and learning during the next few years. But it is your children, as individuals, who will choose what excites them, what generates intellectual passion, and what engages their very able minds. I hope that you will support their choices.

In the movie Invictus, Mandela aims to motivate the captain of the Springboks with the poem "Invictus," which helped inspire him during his long imprisonment. The final stanza of that poem is:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

So it is with your time here at Stanford. You will have many opportunities, but you are the master of your fate for the next four years. And, you will also be responsible for how you use your education after you leave Stanford. We will return to that topic at your graduation on June 15, 2014.

I welcome all our new students and their parents to the Stanford family, a family that consists not only of the 25,000 students, staff and faculty on campus, but also of more than 100,000 alumni around the world.

Students, I hope your time here transforms your lives, just as it has transformed the lives of so many alumni.

Finally, I hope your time here will help to provide a foundation on which you will make your contributions to a better future for yourselves and the generations that will follow.

Welcome to the Farm and welcome to the Stanford community.