Speeches & Writings

2018 Winter Commencement Address

by President Martha E. Pollack

As prepared for presentation
December 15, 2018
Ithaca, New York


Thank you Provost Kotlikoff, and good morning, everyone! I’d like to extend an especially warm welcome to the family and friends of our graduates. Your love and support brought them through the rigors of a Cornell education. So, graduates, please join me in thanking your family and friends. We are so glad to have you here.

It’s not too often that you can call a gathering of 2500 people “intimate.” But when it comes to Cornell degree recognitions, this is an intimate gathering. That’s only part of the reason why this is one of my favorite events of the year. Like any Cornell president, I love the excitement and grandeur of May Commencement. But there are significant advantages to a graduation ceremony that can be held in Barton Hall instead of out on Schoellkopf Field.

One of those advantages is the roof. Because at Cornell, we hold these events “rain or shine” and, well—this is Ithaca. This past May, as some of you might remember, it did not shine. It did the polar opposite of shining. The rain came down so hard that morning that I had to put each page of my speech into a plastic sheet protector, so it wouldn’t turn into mulch right there on the podium. And by the way, if you ever have to do that:  make sure that the open end of the plastic protector faces down, not up!

Here in Barton, not only are we safe from the perils of precipitation, but I have the pleasure of being able to see the face of each graduate, and shake each one’s hand. And I’m so glad to be Cornell president in an age when we do celebrate the achievements of our December graduates with caps and gowns, pomp and circumstance. It wasn’t always this way.

Our presence here, in full academic regalia, is at least partially due to someone you have almost certainly never heard of: a Mrs. J. A. Zecca, of Suffern, New York, whose son graduated from Cornell exactly thirty years ago this winter. In those days, there was no separate commencement ceremony for winter graduates. Depending on the college and the year, you might have gotten a lunch or a reception, to which family were usually not invited. Two months later, you got your diploma in the mail. If you wanted to wear a cap and gown, you had to come back to Ithaca in May.

Mrs. Zecca felt that this wasn’t right. So she wrote a letter to then-university president Frank H. T. Rhodes, asking why there wasn’t a ceremony to recognize her son’s winter graduation. President Rhodes wrote back. It was too late to change this year’s plans, he said, but he graciously included an engraved invitation to the buffet luncheon for students that, at the time, was the only event held to mark winter graduations.

I hope she accepted that invitation. Because her letter planted a seed. Until then, nobody thought many families would travel all the way to Ithaca in December, even for a graduation. But President Rhodes, and many others, wanted to do something for what they thought were the few parents, like Mrs. Zecca, who would. So the next year, there was a reception held, on a Friday night in late December, in Willard Straight Hall, to which parents were invited.

Now remember: it’s Ithaca, and it’s December. So nobody was too surprised when sometime that Friday it began to . . . snow. There was a huge snowstorm. But no snowstorm was going to stop Cornell families. So many people showed up that night, and packed into a room built for only 350, that the chief of police said, sternly, “Next time—you’ve got to get a bigger room!”

And so here we are. More than 450 graduates, with well over 2,000 family and friends—joining generations of Cornell families whose love is so strong that no snowstorm could keep them away. All of you who are here this morning to celebrate the graduation of a son or daughter, husband or wife, brother or sister, niece, nephew, grandchild, parent, or friend, are part of the story of that graduate, and of their time at Cornell. Every one of those stories is and always will be unique, whether it began with a fat envelope in the mail, or with an acceptance you may have posted on Instagram.

Part of the mission of Cornell is to ensure that no Cornell education, however it begins, ends at the gates of Schoellkopf Field, or the doors of Barton Hall. Our mission is to discover, preserve and disseminate knowledge; to educate the next generation of global citizens; and to promote a culture of broad inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community.

And to me, that phrase, “culture of broad inquiry,” is another way of saying, curiosity. Cornell and its graduates—you—relish and promote intellectual curiosity. And we relish and promote enthusiasm—not just for knowledge, but for the impact we can have on the world with that knowledge. Because to be a Cornell student is to be that kind of student who, in the middle of a book or at the end of a class, thinks to themselves, or maybe even says out loud—“Wow, that is so cool!”

I think that joy of learning is something that comes naturally to us when we’re young. I will never forget the little girl I met this past September, at Ithaca’s Leading with Love Community Walk on the first day of school. She was so excited: she came up to me and said, “I made up a dance for my first day of kindergarten. Can I show it to you?” Yes, she’d made up a dance! I of course said I’d love to see it, and so she danced her “first day of school” dance for me, right there in front of everyone.

I’m sure she was a little scared. Who isn’t, when they are about to do something wholly new, and their world is about to change forever? But that kindergartner came to her experience with pure joy. And that is what I wish for all of you—that as you head off to whatever is next, you face your new experiences, and your new worlds, with joy.

I am not going to talk this morning about the many challenges facing our society and our planet. I’m simply going to say that your Cornell education has prepared you, perhaps better than you know, to be one of the people who makes that world better. It’s taught you to work hard. To manage your time, and set your priorities; to ask questions, and seek out answers; to listen well, and take account of different perspectives. I hope it’s also taught you to value the things that are more important than any course grade, graduate school acceptance, or job offer: your family, your friends, and the human relationships that are the sources of life’s greatest happiness.

There’s one other thing that’s special about a December graduation that I didn’t mention at the beginning. It’s that everyone who is graduating today did things a little bit differently. You transferred from another college, or within Cornell. You finished early, or needed a little extra time. You studied abroad, took a semester away, or faced challenges—and overcame them.

Whatever path brought you to today, it was your own path, shaped by your own experiences, your own decisions, and your own hard work and determination. It is a path to claim as your own, as Cornellians who, like Ezra Cornell, sometimes find that the best way to move forward is differently from everyone else. So as you set forth on this new path, do it with ambition, with confidence, and with joy. And whatever first days are waiting in your future—don’t forget to dance.

I am so proud of all of you: of what you have accomplished, and what you will accomplish; of who you are, and who you will become. To everyone here, graduates, family, and friends—congratulations. Cornell will always be a part of you, and you will always be a part of Cornell.