Presidential Archives

145th Cornell University Commencement Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
Sunday, May 26, 2013

145th Commencement CeremonyCornell University

Ithaca, NY

Welcome to the 145th Commencement of Cornell University. Congratulations to all of our degree candidates—undergraduate, graduate and professional—and to the faculty, staff, other students, friends, family and loved ones, here and back at home.

I especially recognize the families of the graduates. It’s been said that behind every graduate stands a very proud—and very relieved—family. Graduates, your friends and families, in all their distinctive variations, have been there for you. Let’s take a moment to thank them.

Let’s also take a moment to remember those whose commencement this would have been, as we do every year by keeping an empty chair in the front row to honor classmates lost during your time here and whose families and friends are in our thoughts today. We also reach out to the family and friends of Christopher Dennis, Class of 2013, who remains missing after a boating accident a few days ago.

We also acknowledge with pride and gratitude the new officers from our ROTC programs who were commissioned yesterday, along with veterans of our armed forces and those currently serving our country in the military who are in the stadium today.

Being a college student—whether graduate, professional or undergraduate—is not easy.

“What is college? Work. Friends. Sleep. Pick two.” That can be especially true at a place as demanding as Cornell: the rigorous Ivy.

My wife Robin and I repeatedly rediscover that trade-off when we spend Orientation Week living with first-year students in Mary Donlon Hall, including during the Class of 2013’s first days on campus. We made many new friends on North Campus and managed to keep up with our day jobs. We did lots of interesting and fun things with you. But sleep? Not so much….

But all of you have come through superbly, and we are proud to recognize you for your achievements today. And each of you has walked your own path to this day—including Kyle Dake ’13, who was just named Sports Illustrated’s male College Athlete of the Year for his accomplishments as a Big Red wrestler; and including our men’s lacrosse team, who concluded their run for the NCAA national championship in a hard-fought game against Duke yesterday and for whom we will have a special Commencement celebration on Tuesday; and including our many international students who now have brighter prospects for remaining in this country if they so desire, thanks to the mounting momentum in Congress to bring about comprehensive immigration reform.

I want to make special note of one individual wearing a cap and gown today. Raymond Simon, Cornell Class of 1954, completed requirements for his Cornell degree in engineering nearly 60 years ago. But Raymond was called to serve in the Army a few days before his own Commencement ceremony, and he never officially “commenced.” Today he joins his grandson, Andrew Simon, Cornell Class of 2013, as a participant in Cornell’s 145thCommencement. Congratulations, Raymond!

Commencements are optimistic statements about the future—and, graduates, you give us good reason to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. You’ve already accomplished so much. And despite the very real challenges facing all of us, I have confidence in your capacity for contribution to our world—and your prospects for a productive and fulfilling life.

Of course, to some, life beyond college looks uncertain right now. We all know recent graduates who are working at jobs that don’t really require a college degree—or perhaps still trying to figure out the next step. Lacking a good job, immediate career prospects, and the financial stability that goes with them, they find it difficult to start families or make other life decisions. And we face so many challenges—from climate change, to global inequalities, to violence of all sorts—that it can be difficult to look forward with confidence.

How can you proceed with confidence when so many seem to be losing hope? No one answer will fit every graduate, but—whether you are moving from Schoellkopf this morning to a job…or military service…or graduate or professional school…or service in a nonprofit…or still looking for the right opportunity—as Cornell graduates, you are well equipped for the next step and ready to make a difference.

Attitude can be as important as aptitude for navigating the waters ahead, so let me remind you of some of the qualities of mind and spirit that you’ve developed at Cornell and that will continue to serve you well.

First, continue to be optimistic. There is an old saying (often ascribed to Abraham Lincoln): “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Of course, it is not quite that simple, but having an optimistic, “can-do” attitude—focusing on the possibilities instead of the problems—can go a long way in achieving your goals.

That’s one of the messages of Sheryl Sandberg’s provocative and controversial new book, Lean In. Sandberg, as many of you know, is the chief operating officer of Facebook, and her book provides an important perspective to anyone aspiring to leadership and facing important life choices. Her message: Believe in yourself, give it your all, “lean in” to claim your place at the table. And “don’t leave before you leave”—in other words, don’t back off from your aspirations because you have another, potentially competing life goal that you worry will make you less able to do your job.

David Schneider, who earned his master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Cornell a few years ago and is now a lecturer in operations research and information engineering here, made a similar point in his lecture last month to Mortar Board, a senior honor society. Schneider has been a screenwriter for Disney and an engineer for NASA. He has worked for the National Science Foundation and Intel and been a teacher at Columbia and Cornell. And, as he told students at his lecture, “You’re the only person who holds yourself back. Look at all these different things I got to do, just because I put myself out there, you know – positive attitude each time. If you’re going to do it, give it your all.”

As Cornell graduates, you bring formidable talents, experiences—and intellect—to whatever you set out to do. Now you need to match that with optimism, focus, and effort. With the rigorous preparation and significant achievement that have earned you a college degree, there is no doubt that you are well-equipped for nearly whatever you set out to do. So recognize your extraordinary talents—and then go out, with optimism and determination, to identify and then reach your goals.

Second, savor the present, be mindful of your good fortune as new Cornell graduates, but also keep your eye on the far horizon. In his classic book Choosing the Right Pond, Robert Frank, the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and professor of economics at Cornell’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, notes that it is often advantageous over the long term to choose opportunities that may not yield the highest return in the short term. The opportunity to learn from talented colleagues, for example—what Frank calls “learning effects”—can provide significant benefits over time, especially to younger workers. So look at opportunities, not only through the lens of your immediate needs but also with an eye toward what you can learn and where the opportunities might take you over time.

And don’t be afraid to fail. If you have studied entrepreneurship at Cornell or tried entrepreneurial ventures on your own—whether forming a new student organization or a startup business—you know that you can sometimes learn even more from your failures than from your successes.

In his book, The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner relates that Iceland is one of the world’s happiest countries—despite relative isolation and long, dark winters that make Ithaca look like a tropical paradise. Well, let’s not get carried away, that make Ithaca weather look mild. Among the reasons for Icelanders’ sense of well-being is that its young people are encouraged to follow their passions—to try and fail at many things—and then to regroup and try again.

Is there a technical challenge or a societal problem that you began to address in an experiential learning course at Cornell and wish you had more time to investigate? Did you pitch a great concept at the BIG Idea Competition or the Cornell Hospitality Business Plan Competition that you’d like to develop further? Especially at this stage in your lives, you can afford to take some risks. Not everything you try will be successful, but learn from your failures and move forward.

Third, have empathy for those around you. Realize that by helping others we can help ourselves build fulfilling and meaningful lives.

Events over this past year, from Newtown, Connecticut to the Boston Marathon, have led many of us to wonder about human nature. Last month a happiness index based on Twitter data, showed that April 15, the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, was the saddest day on Twitter in the past five years. Yet even the most horrific events often bring our best instincts to the fore—as we open our hearts, our homes, and our pockets to assist those in need.

You have already done a great deal during your Cornell careers to help lift the world’s burdens. Members of this class have advocated on behalf of textile workers who make college apparel, convincing Cornell to change our procurement arrangements with certain vendors. You’ve worked to improve mental health services on campus—and to encourage healthier lifestyles—and I am pleased to report, as most of you have undoubtedly noticed, that the fencing on the bridges across our campus gorges has largely been replaced by unobtrusive netting in response to the suggestions that you and other members of our community offered to keep our campus both attractive and safe. You’ve promoted sustainability nationally and globally—as well as on our own campus, and you’ve raised our collective awareness and spurred positive change around a host of other issues.

Whether helping victims of the earthquake in Haiti or those displaced much closer to home by Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, or working to counteract bias and sexual violence on our own campus; whether participating in courses that put knowledge into practice in communities around the world, or contributing to the more than 400,000 hours of service that Cornell students give to the campus and local community each year through the Cornell Public Service Center and other organizations—you have already used your skills and energy to help others in a dazzling variety of ways, while meeting the demands of rigorous academic programs. I hope you will continue to build service and empathy for others into your long-term goals.

Remember my earlier characterization of college: “Work. Friends. Sleep. Pick two.” Some argue that you need to make similar compromises in the real world—that is isn’t possible to have a good job, a balanced life, and still make a difference. And in practice many people these days seem willing to settle for two—or even one—out of three.

But, as David Starr Jordan, an early Cornell graduate who went on to become the first president of Stanford, once said, “Be a life long or short, its completeness depends on what it was lived for.”

Class of 2013, candidates for advanced degrees: You’ve earned our congratulations and our good wishes. Hold fast to your dreams. Include others in them. Have confidence in your skills. With optimism, forward-thinking and empathy, you can create a meaningful, fulfilling future—and also a better world.

We believe in you. We are counting on you! Congratulations to you all.