Speeches & Writings

Remarks at the Commencement of the 155th Graduating Class

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for delivery
Saturday, May 27, 2023
Ithaca, New York

Good morning everyone, and congratulations graduates!

And welcome to everyone who is here to celebrate the amazing class of 2023!

Before I say anything else, I want to do something I do at every commencement. It’s important, so even though I know you’re excited, I need you to focus for just one minute.

One last assignment before you get your degrees.

Without yelling and cheering—I know, that’s the hard part—I want you to stand up, turn around and face the bleachers. If it’s hard for you to stand up, just turn around.

Okay, now: look up in the bleachers, and see if you can find your family, your friends, and all the people who are here to love and support you.

And if you can’t find them, or they couldn’t be here today, I want you to picture them in your minds.

Now I want you to think, for just a moment, about all the things you are grateful to them for—

all the ways they’ve helped you get to where you are, right here, right now.

And with all the gratitude you have for that, in whatever language it is you and they speak together, at the count of three, my count of three, I want you to yell thank you.

OK? One, two, three—

Thank you!

I think they’re grateful.

And now I want to pause, for another moment—and remember the Cornellians whose graduation this should have been, and the people we wish could have been here to celebrate with us today, whom we remember with an empty chair on the field.

Thank you.

A little under four years ago, on August 24, 2019, the new members of the undergraduate class of 2023 arrived here at Schoellkopf Field for the first time.

You had a lot on your minds. You were thinking about your orientation schedules and your swim tests, about unpacking your rooms, meeting your roommates, and saying goodbye to your families, who might have been a little more emotional about things than you were.

(That might also be the case today.)

You were about to set off on something completely different from anything you’d ever done before. You were excited, you were nervous, and you were probably a little scared.

Not all of you sitting on the field now were here that day. Some of you came to Cornell as transfer students, many of you are graduating with graduate and professional degrees.

But what I said to our newest Cornellians back then applied equally to all of you.

I said that in just a few years (May 2023, to be precise), you’d be back here in Schoellkopf, in caps and gowns, waiting to receive your degrees.

I said that when that day came around, you’d be different people.

Your time here would have changed you. Your Cornell educations would have helped you develop not only a capable intellect, but also a mature conscience; prepared you not only for your careers, but for your lives as citizens of your nation and the world.

But all of that would only happen if you put in the effort. Because education is not a passive activity.

So I gave you a piece of advice. I told you to take off your headphones.

I asked you not to shut yourself off from what was around you.

To be present in the moment; to connect to people and experiences; and to engage deeply with the knowledge and ideas you would encounter here.

To seek out the people who were different from you, and listen to their points of view—

even, and especially, when you disagreed.

I reminded you that it was okay, and normal, to struggle sometimes: that a Cornell education is rigorous, and if you never struggled here, it probably meant you weren’t pushing yourselves hard enough.

And I told you not to be afraid of the difficult or the uncomfortable: to embrace new challenges, learn from your failures, and recognize that a Cornell degree is distinguished, in important part because a Cornell education is hard.

Whether you’re celebrating your bachelor’s degree or your master’s, becoming a doctor of laws or veterinary medicine, or entering into the community of scholars as newly minted doctors of philosophy—you’re a different person now than you were when you arrived here.

Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you started down a path, when you couldn’t see where it would end.

And like Dorothy, you kept going, even as you met challenges along the way—some of which you’d never imagined.

There’s a lot about Dorothy’s journey that mirrors life—which is probably why the movie is such a classic, and one that we see differently at different stages in our own lives.

When I first saw it, in second grade or so, I found Dorothy’s journey from the Kansas prairie to the wonders of Oz and back captivating—and perplexing.

I loved the songs, and how the movie changed from black and white to glorious Technicolor.

But there were also flying monkeys. And they terrified me.

Those monkeys, and my fear, raised some real questions, in my seven-year-old brain, about what exactly was going on with the main characters.

I understood why the Tin Man wanted a heart. I completely got why the Scarecrow wanted a brain.

But what did it mean to want courage?

A heart let you feel, a brain let you think. But courage?

Those monkeys were coming after Dorothy to bring her to the Wicked Witch of the West!

How was courage, this abstract idea, going to change that reality?

Well—let’s fast forward about fifty years. From flying monkeys—to faculty meetings.

I’d just been named president of Cornell, but I hadn’t started yet, and I was talking to a group of faculty at my previous university about academic careers.

One of them asked me, “Aren’t you scared about this new job?”

I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember what I thought.

“Obviously I’m scared. Your point?”

How could I not be scared? I was taking a job that would put me squarely in the public light.

What if I made a significant mistake, and humiliated myself?

Even worse: I was taking a job where my decisions would impact tens of thousands of people. What if I made the wrong decision, in a way that had a negative impact on some or even on all of those lives?

(And this was long before I knew the kinds of decisions I’d be making just a few years later—I never could have imagined then, having to decide whether, and how, to re-open campus during a pandemic.)

So, yes, I was scared: to be anything else would have been either ignorant or incredibly arrogant.

But by then, I’d learned something I hadn’t known, back when my understanding of courage was informed only by wicked witches and flying monkeys:

That having courage doesn’t mean not being scared.

It means having the capacity to move forward, despite being scared.

And I’d also learned that if you don’t take risks—if you don’t walk intentionally, thoughtfully, into situations that will challenge you, and that are therefore inherently scary—then you’re not going to have the impact on the world that you could, and you’re not going to feel personally satisfied.

Any new step, any big change, carries risks.

The risks I faced in coming to Cornell weren’t flying monkeys in a movie.

They were real.

Scary? Sure.

But I believed deeply—and always have—in higher education and its power to transform lives.

And it was the experience that I’d accumulated over time—experience doing things that were scary and that challenged me—that made me able, and willing, to take risks for the things that mattered to me.

And that gave me the courage I needed, to move forward.

Just like it did the Cowardly Lion—who, by the time he makes it back to the Emerald City, isn’t cowardly at all.

Why am I telling you this?

Because all of you are going out into new roles.

You’ve passed a milestone on your own yellow brick roads, and are heading on to do whatever’s next. And whether it’s more education, or a new job, or taking time to explore: it’s scary.

What if you make the wrong choice?

What if you make a mistake and embarrass yourself?

What if you make a mistake and it ends up harming someone else?

What if?

But ask: what if you hadn’t taken that scary step you took so long ago—of coming here to Cornell?

Ask: what if you hadn’t pushed yourself while you were here, to try those things that were new, and intimidating, and that stretched you in ways that were hard, and uncomfortable?

As Cornellian Anne Chow, the former CEO of AT&T Business put it:

At Cornell, (she said)

“I was uncomfortable a lot—and I learned that comfort was not the objective, and courageousness was required. I learned that courage is actually the opposite of comfort.”

Now, I want to be clear here, that we all need places, and people, and experiences in our lives that are comfortable—that’s part of being human.

But if you try to arrange your whole life to be comfortable, if you try to avoid all the situations and experiences that make you uncomfortable, if you shy away from whatever scares you—I can assure you that you will not end up satisfied.

So when there are opportunities to do things that are meaningful to you, where you see the chance to contribute, to stretch yourself—grab them.

Even though, and maybe especially because, they’re uncomfortable.

Because that’s how you develop courage.

That’s how you learn to handle the next challenge, and the next—

how you grow, and learn, and find yourself moving more confidently forward.

And that’s how you make a difference to the world around you, and the people in it.

At Cornell, you learned so much more than the knowledge and skills required for your diplomas.

You learned how to live in and appreciate a diverse community;

to engage across difference;

to listen to other voices and to speak your own mind.

You learned, I hope, to value free expression: that indispensable condition, as Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo put it,

upon which all other freedoms are based.

All of that, everything you learned here, has helped shape the person you’ve become;

and you’ll draw on all of it, in the years ahead.

You’re going out into a world where many people feel their voices aren’t being heard. And it’s not always comfortable to hear voices with which you disagree.

It takes courage to really listen to people who are saying things that are at odds with the beliefs you hold dearest. But at Cornell, you’ve developed the courage it takes to do that. You know how much it matters, you know that the effort is worthwhile, you’ve learned to move forward even when it’s uncomfortable and hard and scary.

Our democracy depends on that ability—on our ability and our willingness to push ourselves outside our place of comfort, to listen to, and try to understand, people who see the world differently.

Perhaps what we all need is to seek comfort less—and courage more.

Because when we do—when we understand the value not only of our brains, not only of our hearts, but also of our courage—that’s when we’ll be able to do the most we can,

with everything we sought and found, in this, our own green city on a hill.

Congratulations, Cornellians. May the educations you began here never truly end;

may they continue on, throughout your lives, wherever they may take you;

and may the knowledge and the ethos you gained here forever guide your paths.

Cornell will always be a part of you, just as you will always be a part of Cornell.

Ceremony One

Ceremony Two