Stanford graduates encouraged to expand their awareness

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar
Commencement speaker Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar encouraged the graduates to snap their fingers while he rapped part of his commencement address.

In a personal and impassioned speech, California Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino “Tino” Cuéllar asked the Stanford University Class of 2017 to reflect on their privileges, on the importance of fair and factual debate, and on opportunities for future growth and contribution. Speaking at the university’s 126th Commencement on Sunday at Stanford Stadium, which was subject to an unusual heatwave, Cuéllar emphasized a broader approach to life and learning, one that keeps an eye on people and events in the periphery of our everyday lives.

But first, he treated the audience to a Hamilton-inspired rap about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he wrote about in his book Governing Security: The Hidden Origins of American Security Agencies.

“So now you’ve had a chance to see firsthand why I should stick to my knitting,” joked Cuéllar.

Although he may not be all that familiar with rapping, Cuéllar is no stranger to Stanford. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a law degree from Yale, he earned a doctorate in political science from Stanford and joined the faculty that same year. He was the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law and professor, by courtesy, of political science until 2015, and held leadership positions at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford for over a decade. He remains chair of the board for the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Outside the Farm, Cuéllar was also appointed special assistant to the president for Justice and Regulatory Policy by President Obama and was sworn in as a California Supreme Court associate justice in 2015.

“Justice Cuéllar has earned a reputation for possessing great integrity, for respecting a diversity of viewpoints to build consensus, for brilliance and for grace,” said Stanford President Mark Tessier-Lavigne, while introducing Cuéllar.

This was the first Stanford Commencement for Tessier-Lavigne. He became president in September 2016, succeeding President Emeritus John Hennessy, who served in the position for 17 years.

From edge to core
Offering stories of his parents’ and grandparents’ lives in rural Mexico and his own experiences as an immigrant, student and politically active citizen, Cuéllar asked students to consider three reflections. The first of these was how fortunate they are to live when and where they do; to be in a country where food and water is abundant and people’s lifespans are twice that of Cuéllar’s grandfather’s generation.

“You are the heirs to this gift of progress, across time, for some of us, across borders,” said Cuéllar. “It is a testament to creativity; to science – yes, to engineers – but also to those social scientists sitting over there.”

At the same time, Cuéllar also reminded the students that many people still face extreme hardships, including other Americans whose children may never even imagine attending a school like Stanford.

This point introduced Cuéllar’s second reflection, the importance of continuing to gain knowledge outside our comfort zones, and using that to identify and bridge divisions. He advised students to talk with others about truth rather than fighting based solely on belief, and to embrace the people they’ve met who may otherwise exist at the edge of their awareness because of differences in ideology, culture or socioeconomic status.

Cuéllar explained the value of embracing these peripheral experiences by describing an unintended bus ride he once took from San Jose. During the ride, he witnessed a bus driver calmly and simply diffuse a fight between two men by parking and telling them to stop fighting or leave the bus. This action caused the men to realize their argument wasn’t worth losing their ride and taught Cuéllar something new about resolving disputes. Even when faced with disagreements and personal differences to resolve, Cuéllar urged the graduates to keep trying.

“The opportunity to see these divides – to bridge them – now passes to you,” Cuéllar said. “Take from your experience here what you need. Keep at it and listen, because we rarely persuade people we don’t understand. And keep playing your part in our shared effort to separate fact from fiction.”

The last reflection Cuéllar posed to the graduates was to consider the value and variety of public service, such as helping the government interpret science, starting a nonprofit or volunteering for a campaign, as he once did. He told the students to find ways to pay forward their good fortune and recognize their power to make the world better.

Cuéllar closed his speech with a request. He asked graduates to write a letter to their future selves that lists the values at their core but also what has been at the periphery of their awareness, such as concerns about families unable to reap the rewards of modern society or a data point that doesn’t fit the expected.

Said Cuéllar, “Take what’s at the edge of your awareness seriously, and it becomes your own edge – your advantage. Your power to see the dangers others face, and in their fate, yours. Your ability to see the little miracles playing out in a Fresno poetry slam and not just a Silicon Valley coding camp. Your means to engage the world and each other as I’ve seen you do.”

A presidential first
Tessier-Lavigne’s welcome included a special moment of recognition for his predecessor, President Emeritus John Hennessy, hailing his 17 years of leadership. Tessier-Lavigne also read a poem in honor of Father’s Day, before inviting students to participate in the tradition of standing and giving thanks to all their supporters in attendance.

In his closing remarks, Tessier-Lavigne described the graduates’ journeys and futures through the story of Sally Ride. The first American woman to fly in space, Ride was a Stanford graduate and this Commencement landed on the 34th anniversary of her first mission.

“Like Sally, I know all of you can appreciate a moment of tremendous joy made possible by dedication, countless hours of study and a great crew,” said Tessier-Lavigne. “Graduates, this weekend is your moment to celebrate!”

He encouraged the graduates to take many lessons from Ride, such as taking pride in their hard work, being humbled by the beauty and delicacy of life, and remaining open to the unexpected. Like Cuéllar before him, Tessier-Lavigne also championed the importance of understanding and listening respectfully to those with whom we disagree.

“May you continue to embody Stanford’s pursuit of excellence to benefit all of humanity in your endeavors,” said Tessier-Lavigne. “And, may you fulfill the vision of our founders, who asked of all Stanford students that you be true to the best you know.”

Tessier-Lavigne ended his remarks with congratulations and a reminder that, although today marks a new beginning, the graduates are forever a part of the Stanford family.

Degrees at a glance
At Commencement, the university conferred 1,659 bachelor’s degrees, 2,402 master’s degrees and 1,021 doctoral degrees. The seniors and graduate students receiving degrees represented all of the schools at Stanford.

See also:

Stanford Commencement Weekend 2017 in pictures
Stanford Commencement 2017 Wacky Walk
Text of the 2017 Stanford Commencement address by Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar
Remarks by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne at the 2017 Commencement ceremony