Speeches & Writings

Remarks at the Commencement of the 154th Graduating Class

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for presentation
Saturday, May 28, 2022
Ithaca, New York

Good morning everyone, and congratulations graduates!

It is so great to be here, and to be celebrating with all of you the remarkable achievements of the remarkable Cornell Class of 2022.

Whatever the weather is like, Graduation Day is always a sunny day—so, as I always do, I’m going to put on my shades.

Graduates, before I say anything else, I want to take a few moments to say something you know already—which is that none of the achievements we’re here to celebrate are solo achievements.

Everybody who is graduating this morning, whatever degree they’re receiving, is graduating because of the care and help and support of others—the parents, grandparents, and siblings, the family by birth and family by choice, the faculty and staff, classmates and friends, who together made your Cornell education possible.

And I know that many of those people are up there in the stands today. So right now, 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.

All right, this is what I want you to do:

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 each of you to yell “thank you” so loudly, that the people here supporting you will hear your voice over all the thousands of graduates who are also going to be yelling.

Got that? One, two, three:

Thank you!

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.

This year marks Cornell’s 154th commencement, and our third since the start of the COVID pandemic. There’s a lot I could say about the challenges the Class of 2022 has faced together since the pandemic began. But frankly—I think you’ve had enough pandemic-related communications from me to last a lifetime.

So I’m going to make the same promise to you that I made to the Class of 2020, when they returned for their rescheduled, and re-rescheduled, commencement last fall—that the rest of my comments today will not contain any of the following words or phrases: unprecedented, uncertain, new normal, physical distancing, social distancing, public health, mask-wearing, Zoom meeting, virtual event, super-spreader event, surveillance testing, contact tracing, quarantine, transmission, adaptation, isolation, vaccination, or pandemic.

Oh, and I won’t have to say “you’re muted.”

As the Cornell class of 2022, you’re the first graduating class in which almost everyone was born in the 21st century. That means that almost all of you are digital natives. You’ve grown up in a world of ubiquitous technology, and your lives have been shaped in countless ways by the communication, services, entertainment, and careers that modern technology, including the internet, has made possible. And whatever degree you’re graduating with today, whatever your future plans, nearly all of you are looking ahead to careers that will be enabled in some way by technology.

But there’s one tech-enabled career that we don’t have a course of study for. And it’s a job it took me, as a non-digital native, a while to get my head around.

That is the career of “influencer.”

When I first realized that this was a new profession, being a university president, I wanted to know what training or education you needed to qualify for it.

It didn’t take me long to discover that there is no major for this (although there are a surprising number of websites that explain how to become an influencer in five, seven, or twelve easy steps).

But none of those websites answered a key question: what makes influencers influential? I decided I needed some examples, so even though I’m not really a fan of rankings or top ten lists, I googled “top ten influencers.”

I didn’t look at all 17 million hits, but on the first page I found, on a site I’d never heard of, there was a list that claimed to rank the top ten “real” influencers. Helpfully for me, it also offered a definition of a “real influencer.” This definition excluded, among other categories, politicians, musicians, athletes, actors, public figures, and celebrities—basically, anyone who had become famous for something they had done off the internet.

A “real” influencer, according to this particular list, was someone who had become famous only through their use of social media: by making videos about the clothes they wear, or the food they eat, or the makeup they put on—and then getting people to pay attention to anything from their home renovation to their dinner. The goal of all this, so far as I can tell, is to create a public version of your life, that will make other people want their lives to be, not like your actual life, but like that curated version of your life. And if they like that version of your life enough, then maybe you’ll influence them… to buy things.

At this point, I’d like to go out on a limb and make a bold assertion.

That your influence should be measured, not by how you present your life, but by what you do with it.

And if that disqualifies you from someone’s top ten “real influencer” list—well, that’s probably just fine.

Each of you, as Cornell students who are soon to be Cornell graduates, has an extraordinary potential to be a true influencer—in the real world.

Between the graduates on the field today, and those who will be here this afternoon, and those who graduated from our Weill Cornell Medicine and Cornell Tech campuses in New York city last week, the Cornell Class of 2022 represents knowledge, skill, expertise, and potential, across nearly every field, and discipline, and realm of human creativity.

You will become artists and engineers, lawyers and physicians and veterinarians, musicians and actors, bankers and business owners and scientists and teachers and community organizers. In the years to come, you will learn and teach, invent and innovate, write and create, build and lead.

Together, you will make contributions that Ezra Cornell could never have dreamed of when he imagined this institution for any person, and any study.

And together, as the 154th graduating class of Cornell, you will change the world in ways we can’t yet imagine—sharing the fruits of your Cornell education, as have generations of Cornellians before you, since our very beginnings.

Wherever you go from here, know that the work and innovations, and yes, the influence of Cornellians will be all around you: in every glass of pasteurized milk, every air-conditioned room, every digital computer, every implanted pacemaker. If you’ve eaten an apple, or a blueberry, or a grape in New York state, you probably have a Cornellian to thank for it. And the next time you sit down to a Thanksgiving turkey, or a chicken nugget—yep. Also Cornell.

If you watched the Mars rover landing, or loved Charlotte’s Web as a kid, or had your life changed last year by two or three doses of a certain virus-preventing substance I promised not to mention—all of those contributions to our world were brought to you, in some part, by Cornellians.

In the years ahead, Cornellians will bring the world more resilient varieties of fruit, vegetables, and grain; better ways to grow and preserve food; and farming practices that preserve our soil and our water. Because of Cornellians, we’ll have more efficient batteries and solar panels, packaging that will keep plastics out of our ecosystem, and better ways to create and store renewable energy. We’ll find new and pathbreaking applications for artificial intelligence—developed with a human understanding of technology. We’ll have more livable cities, more equitable societies, and a more sustainable planet. And we’ll have art, and music, and literature, and poetry, to enrich our lives and feed our souls—created by Cornellians like you.

Each of you came to Cornell, not just for a degree, but for an education. And not just for any education, but for the uniquely Cornellian education that you knew you would find here: one that would prepare you with not only the skills and the knowledge, but also with the competence, and the ethos, and the habits of mind, to add your own contribution to the influence on the world that this university has had, through every one of its 154 graduating classes.

What I ask of each of you today, is something very simple.

Use your Cornell educations, to have an influence that will matter.

Build on both the specific knowledge you gained in your classes, and the habits of mind and the Cornell ethos you developed here:

the courage to question, and to explore;

a commitment to science, and to truth;

an appreciation for literature and the arts;

a love for the natural world;

respect for the value of diversity, and of different perspectives;

the importance of good friends, and of being one;

and the resilience to keep moving forward, when the paths you laid out, and the landscape you knew, bend and shift before you.

My wish for all of you is that you will each become, in your own unique way, a true influencer: someone whose influence on the world—whatever it may be—is real, and lasting, and good.

May the friends you made here always share your journey; and may Cornell always be a part of you, just as you will always be a part of Cornell.

Congratulations, Class of 2022!