Presidential Archives

142nd Cornell University Commencement address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Welcome to the 142nd Commencement of Cornell University. I offer my congratulations to all of our graduates. All university commencements are special moments in time. The graduation of the undergraduate class of 2010 is a particularly special one for me. I came to Cornell with many of the graduates who arrived as first-year undergraduates in 2006. We have shared these four years. You are moving on, but I am not quite ready to graduate. As I trust you have learned much from your professors, fellow students, and our staff, I thank all of you for what you have taught me about Cornell, about yourselves and about education. I appreciate the friendships we have forged in these four extraordinary years.

Graduates, both undergraduate and those gaining advanced degrees, let’s take a moment to recognize your families who have helped make this glorious day possible.

Nearly a dozen of today’s graduates are the fourth or fifth generation in their families to earn a degree from Cornell. They include Sammy Perlmutter, Arts and Sciences ’10, my boss at the Cornell Daily Sun. Sammy edited my column for much of the current academic year, and his father, grandmother and great grandfather also earned Cornell degrees; Christina Croll, daughter of David D. Croll, a member of the Cornell University Board of Trustees, who also has a Cornellian grandfather and great grandfather; and fifth-generation Cornellian Kevin Schoonover, Arts and Sciences ’10, whose father, grandmother, great grandfather, great grandmother, and great, great grandfather all earned degrees from Cornell.  

Many others among today’s graduates are the first in their families to earn a degree from Cornell. Froilan Malitearninga degree from the ILR School today, is the first member of his family—and the first member of his tribe (the Gaddang of the Philippines)—to earn a college degree. In the Philippines, from about the age of six, he worked with his grandmother as a flower-picker for less than $2/day. After immigrating to California with his siblings five years ago—and speaking only his native language and Tagalog—Froilan worked three jobs, enrolled in a community college to improve his English, and then transferred to Cornell. Here he founded Global Youth Concept, a Cornell student organization and international NGO that seeks to combat malnutrition and educational gaps in rural areas of the Philippines—work he will continue in the Philippines next year while also completing a master’s degree through the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.

I also want to recognize Senior Class President Jeff Katz and Alumni Class Co-Presidents Stephanie Rigione and Darin Lamar Jones, whom many of you met at yesterday’s Senior Convocation. Thanks to their leadership and the support and participation of so many classmates, the Class of 2010 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 for many years to come.

Let’s take a moment to share memories from the graduates’ time at Cornell: We have enjoyed and learned from many leading thinkers and public figures who visited Cornell. Among these notable visitors, to highlight just a few, were: Angela Davis, the Dalai Lama, Stephen Colbert, Mike Huckabee, and Toni Morrison M.F.A. ’55. We also had the honor of hosting and interacting with a wide range of international leaders, including: Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan; Shimon Peres, former and current president of Israel; Joschka Fischer, German foreign minister and vice chancellor; Zhou Wenzhong, Chinese ambassador to the US; Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia; Mme. Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis, former Haitian prime minister. And, of course, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, at yesterday’s Senior Convocation.

My wife, Robin Davisson—professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Weill Cornell Medical College—and I met many of you during your first week as Cornellians, when we spent several days living with you in Donlon Hall. We’ve enjoyed watching you grow into admirable young adults and true Cornellians, participating with you, together and separately, in events on campus and at our home, and standing with you at vigils to commemorate those lost in natural disasters, particularly the earthquakes in China and Haiti.

Let’s reflect for a moment on just a sampling of the many incredibly impressive projects and initiatives undertaken by our degree candidates: Some of today’s graduates created novel high-tech inventions—from a shoe-box sized car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell (which took first place in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers student car competition); to an autonomous underwater vehicle, which also earned first place in an international competition; to the 100-mpg vehicle team that is competing for the Progressive Automotive X Prize next month.

Four seniors won first place in the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge—using their knowledge and critical thinking skills to assess a working dairy farm and make recommendations on nutrition, reproduction, milking procedures, animal health, housing and financial management. Others have been involved in outreach to the community, including the Cornell Farmworker Program, which seeks to improve the living and working conditions for farmworkers and their families in New York State—efforts for which it was recognized this spring with the Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony. CU Winds has shared music not only with the Cornell community, but also with younger students in Philadelphia and Costa Rica.

And how about Big Red Athletics?! We enjoyed athletic victories aplenty during these years: including but not limited to women’s and men’s ice hockey, gymnastics, fencing, polo, men’s basketball, softball, men’s and women’s track and field, which claimed the Outdoor Heptagonal team titles (the men for the eighth straight year outdoors and the women for the eighth time in nine years outdoors), and men’s lacrosse, which made it to the NCAA “final four” for the third time in four years. Go Big Red!
We are so proud of the many Cornell students who earned a large array of the most prestigious and competitive awards in higher education. Among today’s graduates are Marshall, Churchill, Truman, and Goldwater Scholarship winners, Fulbright Scholars, as well as winners of several other graduate and professional student awards. And I want to make special mention of Isao Fujimoto, age 76, who is serving as a degree marshal for this commencement. Dr. Fujimoto is senior lecturer emeritus at the University of California-Davis, who completed his Ph.D. this year—50 years after he put his dissertation on hold to begin an academic career working in rural sociology, farm labor issues, ethnic studies, social justice, and community, immigration and labor organizing. Their success confirms that a Cornell education, which all these graduates have worked so hard to acquire, is a significant achievement, and is so recognized nationally and internationally.

Of course, we have not only enjoyed accomplishments, victories and times of joy and celebration; we have also had our tough times together as a university family. Especially this year, we’ve faced considerable challenges as a campus community, with the unusual number of deaths, from accidents, disease and suicide.

I want to thank the many parents and family members who sent advice to me and to Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy. Both of us appreciate your perspective and concern. I want to recognize Vice President Murphy and her staff, Gannett Health Services Director Dr. Janet Corson-Rikert and her colleagues, Vice President for Human Resources Mary Opperman and the many other Cornell professionals who helped us move through these very difficult times.

And I thank our student leaders who kept me focused on the future and on the bright horizons ahead, in particular this year’s Student Assembly President Rammy Salem and his colleagues. While walking across the Arts Quad the day after the wonderful “Lift Your Spirits” event organized by our student leaders, I noted a moving and very important reminder written in chalk on the walkway; it said: “Life Is Full of Wonder.” Yes, we can all learn so much from our Cornell students.

As difficult as these losses have been for all of us, they have reminded us of the importance of taking care of ourselves, asking for help when we need it, noticing and responding appropriately when we observe that other members of our university family are in distress, and accepting our responsibilities as members of a caring community.

Students, as we prepare to send you off into the world as Cornell’s newest graduates, l want to remind you of four lessons we have learned together:

Lesson #1: Continue to forge connections with those around you—in your place of employment, your research group, your community, your family.

All of you have people who care about you—as evidenced by Cornell faculty, deans, senior university leaders, and trustees who marched into the stadium with you this morning and the thousands of family and friends who are celebrating with you in the Schoellkopf stands. Here, for example, with David Hartino, who is earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering today—at age 42—is his wife, Alisa, and 7-year-old daughter, Arabella. David spent more than 16 years as a construction worker before coming to Cornell. As a Cornell student, in addition to making the Dean’s List last term, David, through his work at our local Sciencenter, became a developer of virtual worlds for the National Institute of Aerospace and works in an educational outreach division of NASA that provides programs to underserved schools and disadvantaged students. And he says could not have completed his college journey “without the limitless support and patience” of his family.

In our modern world, “being connected” via technology too often replaces being connected with real people in real time and space. In her book, The Connection Gap: Why Americans Feel So Alone, Laura Pappano notes that in 1974, one-third of Americans socialized with a neighbor at least once a week. By 1994, the number had dropped to one-fifth—and fully 40% never did. During roughly that same time period the percentage of Americans who rarely or never spent a social evening with parents or siblings also rose—to a quarter and a third respectively. And, perhaps not coincidentally, during roughly the same time period, the percentage of Americans who felt that others could be trusted fell from one-half to one-third.

You have made it through Cornell because of your skills and drive but also because of the connections to those who care about you, here and at home. As you go forward, keep those connections strong. Remember that there is more to life than completing your next work assignment, planning your next experiment, writing the next chapter in your novel, or making the next judgment on a matter of professional concern. Success depends on more than the strength of your analytical abilities or acuity of your professional skills, no matter how formidable they might be. A satisfying life is grounded not just in individual achievement, but in the strength of the connections we forge with others—working with others toward shared goals, personal, professional, civic, societal. Find ways to build human connections in your life after Cornell. Professor, Dean and Vice President Glenn Altschuler has reminded us to heed the wisdom of E.M Forster in Howard’s End: “Only connect.”

Lesson #2: Sometimes life throws things at you that you didn’t expect, and you have to improvise.

As all too many of us have discovered in this difficult economic time, life doesn’t always unfold according to our best made plans. Companies are downsized, jobs disappear, friends sometimes drift away, illness or accident can cause abrupt changes in a life course.

In the book Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, the life of the main character changes abruptly when, in the last weeks before earning his Cornell veterinary degree, his life plans are upended by the death of his parents and the loss of the family veterinary practice he was expecting to join. The story is set during the Great Depression, when things are tough for many people, and through happenstance, he lands a job with a traveling circus and a life of more danger, brutality, intrigue and passion than most of us could imagine under the Big Top. The book has a happy ending, though, through a series of unexpected events, which I won’t give away.

But the point is that when one door is closed, a window may well open somewhere else—but it is up to us to find it. Be open to new opportunities and experiences—as carefully as you’ve prepared for your future, life is improvisation. You may think of yourself as a future lawyer, poet, physician, writer, entrepreneur, research scientist, architect, farmer, social activist—and carefully prepared yourself for that role—but be alert for unexpected opportunities that may come your way. In a campus with such a distinguished faculty in music, the analogy to jazz improvisation is compelling —staying in tune with those around you, but finding your own means to express yourself and to contribute to the whole.

Lesson #3: “If you learn anything at Cornell, learn to ask for help.”

Professor and Dean of Faculty Bill Fry reminds us that there are an infinite number of bad jokes about men who would rather drive around lost than ask for directions—and it’s still a problem for me even in this era of GPS. But seeking help when you need it is a sign of strength not weakness. On campus there have been resources available at every turn; students, faculty and staff members ready to notice and respond.

Two weeks ago, at the Cornell Law School Convocation, I met a remarkable J.D. graduate, Jesse Horn, who was selected by his classmates in the Law School Class of 2010 to give the student address. Jesse was born without legs, but in addition to completing the rigorous requirements for a Cornell law degree and serving as a leader of his Law School class, he is an accomplished snowboarder—the winner of 17 gold medals in the U.S. Amateur Snowboard Association Championships, co-founder of the association’s Disabled Snowboard Division—and an inspiration to many of us, on and off the slopes. Jesse is joining a Denver law firm and eventually hopes to work for the federal government as a trial lawyer and advocate. Speaking of his experience at the Cornell Law School, Jesse said, “One of the incredible things with Cornell Law is, it’s such a small school…you can approach anybody, and everybody can take time to talk to you—and that extends from the faculty to the staff…to the students themselves.”

It may not be as easy to find support in the real world, but here are some ideas to consider: Stay close to your families, and to the friends, classmates, faculty and staff members who have been important to you during your time at Cornell. They are a strong support system, which will be ready if and when you need it. Check in with the mirror from time to time—to make sure you are taking care of yourself, mentally and physically. Eat right, get enough sleep, exercise, find ways to reduce stress, make new friends, help others—and continue to get help for yourself when you need it.

And remember to tap into the vast network of Cornell alumni around the world, who can help you make professional connections or find out more about a career that interests you. Among those alumni sitting in Schoellkopf today is James McClung, Class of 1978, whose daughter Sarah is graduating today. James is founder and senior vice president of Louis Berger/Asia, based in Delhi, India, and over the past six years he has helped Cornell students gain international experience—including 12 landscape architecture students whom he hosted in India over spring break so that they could learn sustainable cultivation and energy methods and who are earning degrees today. As you join the ranks of Cornell alumni today, I urge you to reach out to other alumni, both receiving assistance and giving assistance to those who come after you.

You’ve learned a lot at Cornell—including how to adapt to changing conditions, to see problems from new perspectives, create your own opportunities; how to find the open window, instead of the closed door—and those skills will continue to serve you well wherever you go after Cornell. You are Cornellians for life.

Lesson #4: Take time to taste the wonder.

This is so very important and something I urged all Cornell students to do in my Cornell Daily Sun column a few weeks ago, and it is especially important for those graduating today. As Cornell graduates, you will likely feel the pressure to keep moving forward—to graduate or professional school, to a job that will put you on course to a bigger paycheck, a nicer office, a more impressive title on your business card. I would be the last person to counsel you against working to realize your material dreams. You are bright, talented, knowledgeable, resourceful, and you deserve the good things that I hope will come your way. But if you spend all your energy thinking about the future and getting to the next level, you run the risk of missing the joy and beauty of the here and now—the precious gift of a sunset or a flower, the sun or rain or, in Ithaca, the snow on your face, the joy, curiosity and optimism of a child, the friendship of a classmate, the love of the parent or grandparent who made a special effort to be here with you on this special day. So in the midst of striving to reach your goals, also take time to savor the special moments and the special people that are yours to celebrate every day.

Finally, I charge you, in the tradition of Cornell graduates over the past 145 years, to effect real and positive change in a world urgently in need of your strength of ideas and spirit. As graduates of Cornell, you have had an extraordinary education and unlimited potential, even in these difficult times. But with the extraordinary privilege of being Cornell graduates, comes the responsibility to use your skills and knowledge to serve others. Many of you have already done this during your time at Cornell: founding organizations, volunteering your time and energy, making a difference on campus and around the world.

I think of the graduate students in the Hotel School and Johnson School, including some of today’s graduates, who worked with Prof. Robert Kwortnik to market the African nation of Zambia as a tourist destination. Their goal is to increase annual tourist visits to Zambia from about 810,000 last year to 3 million in three years — and help the Zambian people begin to work their way out of poverty.

Similarly, there has been a great outpouring of support, both at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and here on the Ithaca campus, for those affected by the earthquake in Haiti. We have reached out to support relief efforts and the rebuilding of the GHESKIO clinic in Port-au-Prince, founded by Dr. Jean (Bill) Pape, a 1975 graduate of the Weill Cornell Medical College, which has been carrying out research and education and providing clinical care for those with HIV/AIDS and related diseases for nearly 30 years. In recognition of its work and to support future efforts, GHESKIO recently earned the 2010 Gates Award for Global Health, which includes $1 million to support the work of the clinic, and Dr. Pape was further honored by the Mérieux Foundation with its 2010 Christophe Mérieux Prize, worth 500,000 Euros, given for research on infectious diseases in developing countries.

There is a strong tradition of public service at Cornell—the ethos that Vice President for University Communications Tommy Bruce, a proud Cornell parent, recognizes as our aspiration to be the “Land Grant University to the World.” Our students contribute some 200,000 hours of volunteer effort to the campus and larger community every year. And our faculty, staff, and alumni are among those making the world a more just and safe planet each day. I charge you to continue to lift the world’s burdens locally, nationally and globally—no matter where your path takes you from Schoellkopf today.

And so it is with high hopes and great expectations that we send you off this morning as Cornell’s newest alumni.


Do great things.

Taste the wonder.

Stay in touch.

And remember you are Cornellians for life.