Issa Rae encourages the Class of 2021 to be a VIP in the club of life

Issa Rae
Issa Rae delivered the undergraduate Commencement address.

After Issa Rae and her friends did Wacky Walk in 2007, carrying a boom box and blasting Foxx, Webbie and Boosie’s “Wipe Me Down” remix, the opening bars of the iconic song became their anthem for all kinds of future celebrations – and as her personal mantra.

Speaking at Stanford’s 130th Commencement ceremony, Rae said the song’s powerful opening lines – I pull up at the club, VIP, gas tank on E, but all dranks on me. Wipe me down. – helped shape her approach and her worldview.

“When I use my Stanford education to break these lyrics down, I can’t help but to think of my own journey and what your journey will ultimately be,” she said.

Rae said it took leaving Stanford to realize what a truly amazing place it was.

“One, it granted me the room to make the space for myself if I didn’t see one, which in turn gave me the confidence to create a space for myself when I officially entered the outside world,” she said. “And two, most importantly and life-changingly, is the community it allowed me to build. The community I built at this school is without a doubt the reason I was able to pursue my dream and why I was asked to speak here today before you.”

The Commencement ceremony began with a procession of graduating seniors entering Stanford Stadium, many carrying on the tradition of Wacky Walk – albeit significantly modified due to pandemic protocols – by walking, bouncing and dancing in homemade costumes while waving to families in the stands.

Some students wore leis, others wore intricately beaded indigenous necklaces. Some wore inner tubes, others dressed as bright yellow flowers. The Stanford Tree joined the parade, followed by students wearing miniature plush trees atop their motor boards. Some students carried mock front pages of the Stanford Daily, with cutouts for their faces and personalized headlines, including “Julia Graduates: A Miracle Occurs at Stanford.”

During the ceremony, Provost Persis Drell introduced and congratulated each of the nine winners of 2021 university awards honoring faculty, students and staff for exceptional service, distinctive contributions to undergraduate education and excellence in teaching. Citations for the winners of the Cuthbertson, Dinkelspiel and Gores Awards are available here.

In his address, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne told the graduating seniors that living through the pandemic had given them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reassess.

Be a VIP in the club of life

Over the years, Rae said she has learned it is essential to approach every opportunity as a VIP – as someone who belongs and deserves to be present. It was a lesson she began to learn at Stanford, which provided the resources for her to put on multicultural theatrical productions all four years at the university.

Looking back, Rae said the plays were “super trash,” but the Stanford community, and her community, in particular, made her feel they were “Tony Award-worthy.”

During senior year, after trying and failing to secure writing opportunities in Hollywood and being told her work didn’t have an audience, Rae created Dorm Diaries, a series about being Black at Stanford featuring her friends who were playing archetypes. In some cases, students were putting in hours for class, schoolwork, rehearsals for the play Rae was putting on and then dedicating their time to be in “this hobby of a web series,” she said.

“That’s love,” Rae said. “When I released the series on Facebook in 2007, the outpouring of support for the episodes from my community made me realize that Hollywood was wrong about there not being an audience for the stories I wanted to tell.”

Trust your Stanford family will show up

Rae said the second section in the song, “Gas tank on E, but all dranks on me,” opened her eyes to the true nature of giving.

“Oh man – I just got chills,” she told the audience. “Do you hear the humility and service in that? What I took from this line is that no matter what obstacles or dire circumstances you personally face, you should always value and celebrate your community. He’s saying, ‘No matter what I’m going through, I got you. Words to live by, and words I’ve experienced from my chosen family right here. Trust and believe that your Stanford family will show up for you – in unexpected ways.”

Rae said her Stanford family showed up in 2011 when she needed actors, a producer and writers to make the first episode of a new series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. When she needed money to keep the series going, mutual Stanford friends, and in some cases, administrators – kept it alive by donating personally or through Kickstarter.

“The outpouring of support from this community – of people who I met here on campus, are the reason I was able to ultimately make the show of my dreams for HBO, Insecure,” she said. “And in my own industry journey, no matter my circumstances, I’ve always made it a priority to find ways to buy the next round of dranks for upcoming creatives, figuratively speaking – sometimes literally too.”

Rae said the final line in the first verse of the song, “Wipe me down,” commands respect and says: ‘give me my props, I’ve earned them.’ ”

Rae recently finished shooting the final season of Insecure, a series she said the industry thought just 10 years ago wouldn’t have an audience. She said she got teary-eyed thanking one of the women who started with her on the web series Awkward Black Girl in 2011 and ended up being an executive producer on Insecure. Standing next to her was one of Rae’s best friends, another alum who inspired a main character.

“We were nominated for eight Emmys last year and won one,” Rae said. “And we got to shoot five seasons of it on our terms. Wipe me down.”

Rae told the graduating seniors that it may take some time to figure out the next moves to make or next places to go – and how to make the most of the time they spent at Stanford.

“Many of those answers are sitting right next to you, or across from you or behind you,” she said. “Build and tap into your community. The brilliant minds in this room will have a hand in shaping the culture, making this world better, leaving long-lasting legacies behind and doing a bunch of other important sh*t,” she said. “I’ve watched so many people in my own class do just that, and I can’t wait to see what you all contribute to the world.”

A rare opportunity to reassess

In his address, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne told graduating seniors that living through the pandemic provided them with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to think about what they really value and the shape they want their lives to take.

“Perhaps your experiences over the last year have solidified your decision to pursue further studies in your chosen field, enter a profession or live in a certain part of the country or world,” he said. “But for others, your experiences over the last year may have caused you to change course. Perhaps the last year has shown you new ways to use your talents to make a difference in the lives of others.”

Tessier-Lavigne encouraged each of the graduating seniors to take the time to reflect – with family members, loved ones and friends – as they prepare to move on to graduate school, to new jobs or to other adventures. He offered four questions for them to consider:

What have I learned about myself this past year?

What are my values – and how have they shifted in the last 15 months?

What matters most to me?

How can I use this knowledge to shape the life I want to lead and contribute to the world?

Tessier-Lavigne said he hoped the day’s ceremony would serve as a true commencement – a beginning, not an ending.

“You have persevered through an extraordinary and challenging time,” he said. “Now is the moment to take what you’ve learned and use that knowledge to shape the life you want to lead. I urge each of you to follow your talents, your interests and your values to discover your own unique path and to build a life of meaning and purpose.”

Stars aligned for Commencement

Maria and Noel Williams, the proud parents of Noah Williams, a Stanford football player who was graduating with a degree in product design, said it “feels fantastic to be sitting in the stands of Stanford Stadium for the Commencement ceremony.”

Williams said his son has talked about graduating from Stanford since he was 10 years old. He said the past year has been an especially challenge for Noah because he had to train and travel for football games during the past season.

“We’ve been hoping and praying that there would be an in-person ceremony and the stars aligned,” Maria Williams said.

Foss Miller, father of Virginia Miller, a track star who is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics, said it was thrilling to be at Commencement.

“It’s been a hard year, but Virginia is an optimistic person and she’s made it through alright,” he said. “I feel immense pride today. I’m proud of her. She’s thrived here not only athletically but also intellectually, and she’s flourished.”

Degrees at a glance

At the ceremony, Stanford conferred 1,436 bachelor’s degrees; 263 of those students earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. The degrees were conferred on students from around the world – with 154 graduating seniors representing 57 countries.

See complete coverage of Stanford’s Commencement.