Presidential Archives

143rd Cornell University Commencement Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
Sunday, May 29, 2011

Welcome to the 143rd Commencement of Cornell University. I offer congratulations to all of our graduates, and to the faculty, staff, other students, and loved ones, here and back at home, who helped along the way.

All university commencements are memorable. They provide occasions to bask in the glory of hard-won achievements; to savor magical hours in a special time and place; to begin the next phase of the journey of life—with all its uncertainties and boundless possibilities; to remember those whose commencement this would have been, as some of us are doing this morning by wearing pins in memory of Brian Lo, who would have earned his degree from the School of Hotel Administration today, and by keeping an empty a chair in the front row to honor other classmates lost during your time here and whose families and friends are in our thoughts today.

Graduating seniors Alex Silver and Jon Tai posted a video tribute to Cornell on Vimeo a few days ago, which captures the bittersweet essence of this time:
“…the sunset on the Slope, the chimes in the distance, walking over hills…”
“…a place where the sun shines far too little and where it snows far too much…”
“It’s being part of a community, and it’s being part of us…”
“This is a place where we walk in the footsteps of giants…where there’s magic in knowledge…”
“This is us saying goodbye. This is you saying hello.”

Thank you, Alex. Thank you, Jon.

Of course, behind every graduate stands a very proud—and very relieved—family. In his book Fatherhood, Bill Cosby deemed having a child “the most beautifully irrational act that two people in love can commit.” Your families, in all their endless beauty and variations, have been there for you during your Cornell years, providing support–financial and emotional–when you needed it most. Let’s take a moment to recognize your families and friends who have helped make this glorious day possible.

And now, as you head off to new adventures, the memories come flooding back. When many of you arrived, in the fall of 2007, Cornell had just been named the “Hottest Ivy” in a Newsweek poll. This accolade was in part for our approach to education and inquiry, which, Newsweek noted, “emphasizes problem-solving as well as scholarly debate.” You jumped quickly into discussions of Nadine Gordimer’s novel, The Pickup—the new student reading selection about life in post-apartheid South Africa—which a surprising number of you, including those in my discussion group, did not like. And throughout your time here, you’ve demonstrated the keen intellect, inquisitive spirit, and capacity for problem-solving noted by Newsweek.

Here’s just a tiny sampling of the many impressive initiatives undertaken by our degree candidates: Fifty seniors who were Hunter R. Rawlings III Presidential Fellows carried out research on topics from genetic and tissue engineering, to prisoner interrogation, to the agricultural and economic challenges facing Mongolian vegetable farmers. Several of today’s graduates, in a joint Department of Horticulture and International Agriculture and Rural Development program course, spent spring break in Belize, working with Mayan children and teachers in a rural school. This year the Cornell Student United Way, led by senior Nathaniel Houghton and others, earned the inaugural United Way Worldwide Student United Way Campus Organization of the Year award for service to the community and innovative fundraising.

And how about Big Red Athletics?! We earned Ivy titles in women’s ice hockey and wrestling last winter. This spring, the women’s polo team earned the national championship—for the 13th time—and the men’s team was national runner-up. The men’s tennis team earned its first-ever Ivy title. And the Big Red men’s lacrosse team won this year’s Ivy championship—with an overall 14-3 record for the season.

We are so proud of the many Cornell students who earned a large array of the most prestigious and competitive academic awards in higher education. Among today’s graduates are Marshall, Luce, Udall, Goldwater, Truman, and Gates Cambridge scholars, a Carnegie Junior Fellow, National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows, as well as winners of several other graduate and professional student awards. Their success confirms that a rigorous Cornell education is a significant achievement, and is recognized as such nationally and internationally.

All of you have received the enduring benefit of an education taught by Cornell’s spectacular faculty. I have no doubt that all of you will go on to do significant things—whether you are headed for a job, graduate or professional school, service in the military, the Peace Corp, Teach for America, an internship or volunteer opportunity, or are taking some time for further exploration before the next step.

Times have been tough. Good jobs are not as plentiful as they once were. Even last year, however, when the job prospects for new graduates were especially difficult, Cornell graduates ultimately did very well, and the trend is positive. Nine days before commencement last year about 40 percent had accepted jobs, while this year at the same point in time, more than 47 percent had accepted jobs, and we continue to receive job postings daily from employers seeking our graduates. With those accepted to graduate or professional school or planning to undertake some other kind of educational or professional development after graduation, more than 80 percent of our graduates know what their immediate future holds, even better than the 75 percent at this time last year.

Equally important to your long-term success, though, will be what you’ve gained from being full and contributing members of the very special and multi-faceted Cornell community and from the bonds to your families that are so evident today. These will sustain you, and I hope you will make it a priority to keep them strong.

First, your families. Today’s families are nuclear, multigenerational, blended; some span nations and even continents, with members separated by the pull of opportunity or by forces beyond their control. Some of you have had to create substitute families to take the place of the ones you didn’t have. Among the ties that bind families are the stories that connect generations—and provide insights into who and what we are.

Téa Obreht, who earned her MFA from Cornell in 2009, tells such stories in her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife. The semi-autobiographical novel involves a young doctor in an unnamed Balkan country, who is simultaneously vaccinating war orphans in a village monastery and attempting to understand the death of her grandfather under mysterious circumstances. “Everything necessary to understand my grandfather”—the young doctor comes to realize—”lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man.  These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life….”

Every family has its stories—extraordinary or mundane, true or imagined, funny or heartbreaking, literal or allegorical—that connect us to our history and, if we are lucky, illuminate our lives. In Schoellkopf today—among the parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins, spouses, partners and children—and wherever members of our families gather, there are stories to be told and heard, invented, remembered and passed on. Even as we rush off to the next opportunity and hurl ourselves headlong toward the future, let’s take time to listen to our family stories and reflect on their meaning for our own lives and for those who come after us.

Families are bound together through thick and thin, giving and receiving support. On joyous occasions like this one, and, equally important, when times are tough. Our families will be there even when it is not easy or convenient. Even when they’d rather be doing almost anything else. And, when the need arises, we’ll do the same for them. And ultimately, the responsibilities we fulfill as members of our families—what we get and especially what we give—is what brings meaning to our lives. So today we recognize and celebrate the deep bonds that connect the graduates to their families—and that will continue to be important as the years go by.

Each of us – each of us – is also part of a larger family: the nearly 150-year-old family of Cornell. This is a family that is also a community.

We talk about the “Cornell community” as if it were a single entity, but the reality is that all of us on campus are members of multiple communities: communities that reflect a professional or career focus—the international development community, the physics community, the design community, the medical community; communities that reflect shared heritage or background—the community of our American Indian Program, the Jewish community, the Muslim community, the African-American community, the LGBTQ community; the communities born through close association and shared experience, whether on athletics teams, West Campus residences, Greek houses, coops or apartments in Collegetown; communities that coalesce around specific issues such as fair labor practices, sustainability, or local foods; communities that reach beyond the campus into Ithaca and much farther afield; communities that challenge and stretch us…and communities which provide a safe and secure harbor.

In 1976, before many of today’s graduates were born, Jimmy Carter, the Nobel laureate and 39th President of the United States, talked about the U.S. not as “a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.”

The mosaic of backgrounds, talents and aspirations we have at Cornell adds immeasurably to the richness of our experiences on this campus. Equally important, though, and holding the individually beautiful pieces of our mosaic together, are shared values that define us as Cornellians, no matter what else we might be. Those values include, among others, respect and affection for each other, embracing and celebrating differences, openness to new ideas, willingness to reach out to others in friendship, and, in widely and wildly varying ways, to lift the world’s burdens by what we do every day, in ways large and small.

Going forward, how will your experiences in the Cornell community transfer to the other communities you will join—or even form? How will you find your places in these new communities? How will you achieve a coherent identity that draws on – and draws in – the disparate communities with which you identify? And what will they mean for you as alumni of Cornell?

Some of you will be involved in building communities worldwide. Earlier this year, Cornell earned a top-25 ranking on the Peace Corps annual list of “Top Peace Corps Volunteer Producing Colleges and Universities.” As of January 2011, 55 undergraduate alumni of Cornell were serving as Peace Corps volunteers. And about 20 of those graduating today—both undergraduates and graduate students—will be continuing that tradition through Peace Corp service after Cornell.

In fostering community development, many of you, no doubt, will use your experience and expertise with the Internet and social media. Events in the Middle East this spring have highlighted the role of social media in organizing communities of like-minded individuals and coordinating the efforts of those who seek to bring about social change. Wikis and open-source technologies are enabling people in widely distant locations to develop and use knowledge. And I can guess that some of you, particularly those who have worked with our superb Faculty of Computing and Information Science, will help create new media not even imagined yet.

And there is still much community building to be done person-to-person and face-to-face and always will be. As we approach a new Presidential election cycle, the opportunities for civic engagement will be manifold, no matter which candidate or party you decide is worthy of your support. Whether your passion is politics or public service, professional leadership or a more individualized pursuit, I encourage you to do what you’ve done here—to find some communities in which you feel safe and at home and others that will stretch and challenge you. It is through our communities that we amplify our individual abilities, combine our varied talents and ultimately forge the collaborative relationships upon which a functioning democracy depends.

And just as you’ve contributed so much to the Cornell community during your time on campus, you have a role to play at Cornell going forward. Thanks to the class leadership, whom many of you met at yesterday’s Senior Convocation, and the support and participation of so many classmates, the Class of 2011 is leaving a wonderful legacy for those who will follow them as students on the Hill. And I hope all of you, as well as those earning graduate and professional degrees, will stay connected with Cornell—to mentor new generations of students, to help shape our shared future, and to carry forward the values that have defined your time at Cornell.

Alex Silver and John Tai, in their wonderful video, got it exactly right:
“It’s being part of a community, and it’s being part of us.”
“This is a place you’ll always call home.”
“This is us saying goodbye. This is you saying hello.”

Class of 2011, candidates for advanced degrees: Congratulations on your achievements. Go out and do great things. But remember you will always be at home here in your Cornell community. And we look forward to welcoming you back as part of our family and community always.