Speeches & Writings

Remarks at the Commencement of the 153rd Graduating Class

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for delivery
Saturday, May 29, 2021
Ithaca, New York

Good morning everyone!

Every time I stand up here in a Cornell cap and gown, I tell a new class of graduates how great it is to be here, how happy I am to see them, and how proud I am of everything they have accomplished.

But this year, being here with you, in person, is better than great; I am really, really, really happy to see you; and saying that I am proud doesn’t even begin to express how it feels to stand here, looking out at the Class of 2021, and at the parents, family, and friends who have supported you through so much.

So, graduates, before I say anything else, this is what I want you to do. This is a football stadium that hasn’t had nearly enough noise this year. In fact, there hasn’t been any noise here this year, and today’s the day we’re going to start making up for that.

I want every one of our graduates to stand up and turn around. If you know where your family and friends are sitting, face them, but if not, just turn in the general direction. Don’t do anything else yet, just turn around. And if your friends and family weren’t able to get here today, don’t worry — it’ll be their turn in a minute. Right now, we need everybody’s noise.

So on the count of three, in whatever language it is you speak at home — whether it’s English, or Spanish, or Hindi, or Yoruba, or Chinese, or Cayuga, or anything else — I want you to yell “thank you” so loudly, that they’d hear you in the stands even during a tiebreaking touchdown for the Big Red against Harvard.

All right? One, two, three:

Thank you!

That was good! But we’re not done yet. Now turn back and face me, but don’t sit down.

As thrilled as we all are that we were able to welcome two guests per graduate this year — there are so many people we wish were here with us today in Schoellkopf, instead of cheering from afar.

So I want everyone to look over here to my right, because I want to introduce you to someone. Graduates, this is Paul. Paul, can you wave so everyone sees you?

Paul is operating Camera 2, one of the cameras bringing the livestream of this Commencement to your families and friends. Everyone you love who you wish were sitting behind you right now — they’re sitting in front of you, right behind Paul.

So on the count of three, what you need to do is yell your “thank you” so loudly they can hear you wherever they are, no matter what their internet connection is like.

Deep breath. One, two, three…

Thank you!

I think they heard you.

You can sit down now.

And before we go any further, I want to pause, for this next moment, to acknowledge the people who are with us today only in our hearts — the students whose graduation this should have been, and everyone we’ve lost over the last year to COVID-19.

Thank you.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past months thinking about what I would say when — sometimes it seemed like “if” — we finally got to this moment. When we all put on our caps and gowns to celebrate your extraordinary achievements at Cornell — especially through this extraordinary last year.

A commencement is a celebration of a milestone. It marks the moment you cross the line between student and alum, between one phase of your lives and the next. This hour, here in Schoellkopf, is that liminal space. It’s where we stand together, on that line between what lies behind and what lies ahead — between the familiar past, and the unknown future.

This isn’t the first time we’ve stood there together.

Four hundred and forty-seven days ago, I wrote you an email I had never imagined writing.

Like all of you, I had followed the news reports, as the coronavirus spread through Asia and Europe, to the West Coast, to New York City. On the advice of public health experts and epidemiologists, we had already brought home our study abroad students, and we had limited the size of our campus gatherings.

We soon came to realize that this would not be enough. But Cornell, in its 155-year history, through two world wars and civil unrest and more than one previous pandemic — Cornell had never closed before. The decision that, in retrospect, we see as inevitable — in that moment, felt unthinkable.

Making that decision — sending that email — meant crossing a line that separated the past we knew and the future we had planned for, from a present that was changing every hour, and a future that had no map.

Four hundred and forty-seven days ago, you opened an email you never imagined you would receive.

You were sitting in Mann Library or the Duffield atrium, getting a snack or heading to your study group meeting. You pulled out your phone to check your email, or maybe you got a text from a friend.

And in that moment, the world stood still.

Campus is shutting down. Classes are going online. They’re sending all of us home.

It seemed, for a moment, like it might be the end of everything.

But the next moment, you looked around you, and you saw that Cornell was still there. And you were too.

You figured out what you needed to do next — what to pack, what to store, where you were going and how to get there. And when you did get there, what you did was finish the semester. On Zoom and on Canvas, by text message and FaceTime call, somehow, you finished it all. You found new ways to be together, to learn, and to grow. When you found yourself in an unmapped future, you adapted your course, and you adapted it again. And again. But every day, you moved forward.

And today — here you are. In caps and gowns, at Commencement — where you were meant to be all along.

The world has become a different place since that moment when, as the song from Hamilton goes, the world turned upside down. But if you know the song, you also know — the world has turned upside down before.

I very much hope that this is the last time in your lives that your world will be turned upside down by a pandemic. But I can almost promise you that it will be turned upside down by other things.

The email will come, or the text message, or the conversation, or the news report — that will draw a new line between what was and what will be, a past you knew and a future without a map.

Or you’ll face a decision that — whatever path you take — will change everything. For you, or the people closest to you, or the people you’ll be there to lead.

And when that happens — the next time your world turns upside down — I want you to remember something.

Remember that you’ve been there before.

Remember that you got through it.

And remember how.

You’re here today because, for four hundred and forty-seven days, you held each other close, even when it was impossible to do that physically. You held on to the kindness and support of one another, and you kept moving forward.

You’re here today because of your commitment and hard work, and because of all of the people — family, friends, chosen family and community, Cornell faculty and staff — who helped keep you going.

And you made it to where you are right now because all of you chose, hour after hour, and day after day — to keep Cornell going. As hard as it was, you did what you needed to do. You kept your masks on, and you kept your distance. You met your friends outside, even in the Ithaca winter, and you got your vaccines as soon as you could. You showed up for your surveillance tests, and maybe you did some time in the Statler. You did your Daily Check, and you checked in on each other.

You chose, day after day, and hour after hour, to put community first. And of all the countless decisions that have kept Cornell safe, and healthy, and moving forward — of all the data and expertise that went into these last four hundred and forty-seven days — your decisions were the ones that mattered most.

Nothing I did in Day Hall — no decision, no policy, no investment — nothing could have taken the place of a community willing to work together for its shared wellbeing.

Of everything you’ve learned in your time at Cornell, and everything you will take with you from here — that may well be the most important lesson of all. And it’s a lesson that is, in every way, entirely consonant with the ethos and the values of Cornell.

A Cornell education has always been designed to do much more than teach its students the knowledge they’ll need to succeed in their careers. It’s designed to teach you to how to live, and how to thrive, in a changing world. And today, perhaps more than ever, our changing world demands much more than any specific set of knowledge. It demands the ability to communicate across difference, and to appreciate different points of view. The willingness to tackle big, thorny problems, and to find answers to questions that were never in a textbook. To learn not just what’s on the next test, but to learn how to learn — throughout a lifetime, as the world, and what there is to know in it, evolves.

The world we live in now is different than it was when you arrived at Cornell, and it will change much more in the years ahead. And the biggest challenges we face now, as a society and a planet, will demand of you everything you’ve learned here — and especially everything you’ve learned in this last year. They’ll demand not just knowledge, but a commitment to truth. Not just science, but the ability to listen to others, and to communicate what you know.

The world that lies ahead will demand of you everything you learned inside of your classrooms and outside of them: both the expertise you came here for, and the creativity, and the courage, and the ability to work together that you gained along the way.

And it will demand of all of us the commitment to do exactly what you’ve done, here at Cornell. Make the hard decisions that will enable all of us to move forward.

Make the personal sacrifices that will enable your community to thrive.

And above all, be kind. Be kind, knowing that doing so could make all the difference in the world to someone else.

This year has taught you the hardest, most important thing: how to stand back up, when the world turns upside down.

You do it by reaching out to help each other.

I am so inexpressibly proud of every single one of you. Of what you’ve accomplished here, as individuals, and together; of the way you’ve brought the ethos and the values of Cornell to life; and of the way you’ve come together to bring us to this point, today.

Graduates, congratulations. When the pandemic is over, come back. Come back soon, and visit often. I look forward to seeing you again at many, many in-person Reunions to come.

Cornell will always be a part of you, just as you, the extraordinary Class of 2021, will always be a part of Cornell.