A graduating student takes a selfie with President Martha E. Pollack after retrieving her lost shoe during Commencement, held May 28 at Schoellkopf Field.

Pollack to grads: ‘Have an influence that will matter’

The Class of 2022 will make contributions to the world that Ezra Cornell could never have imagined when he founded the university for any person and any study, President Martha E. Pollack told graduates at Commencement, held May 28 at Schoellkopf Field.

“As the 154th graduating class of Cornell, you will change the world in ways that none of us yet know – sharing the fruits of your Cornell education, as have generations of Cornellians before you, since our very beginning,” Pollack said during a damp but joyful morning ceremony, where flags waved, noisemakers honked and a graduating student raced to the podium to retrieve one high-heeled shoe.

A total of around 6,000 graduates attended two exuberant ceremonies, held at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. to reduce crowd size.

A total of around 6,000 graduates attended the two ceremonies, held separately at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. to reduce crowd size. In the morning, a steady rain during the processional gave way to a scant drizzle by the end of the ceremony; still, Pollack assured the audience that “every graduation day’s a sunny day” as she donned her signature sunglasses.

But before she continued, one more order of business: the missing shoe.

“I know it was a long walk from the Arts Quad,” Pollack said. “If this is your shoe, come and get it.” The graduate obliged, taking a quick selfie with the president before returning to her seat.

The rain held off for an equally exuberant afternoon ceremony under mostly cloudy skies.

In her speech, Pollack reminded the graduates that they’d come to Cornell not just for a degree, but for an education.

In her speech, President Martha E. Pollack noted that the Class of 2022 was the first in which almost every member was born in the 21st century.

“And not just for any education,” she said, “but for the uniquely Cornellian education you knew you would find here: one that would prepare you with not only the skills and knowledge but also the competence and the ethos and the habits of mind to add your own contribution to the influence on the world.”

Most members of the Class of 2022 were sophomores when the pandemic struck; they persevered amid lockdowns, shifts to virtual learning, physical distancing, surveillance testing and contact tracing.

“There’s so much I could say about the challenges the Class of 2022 has faced together since the pandemic began. But frankly, I think you’ve had enough pandemic-related messages from me,” Pollack said, promising, to cheers, that the rest of her speech would not contain words or phrases including “unprecedented,” “new normal,” “Zoom meeting,” “quarantine,” “transmission” or “pandemic.”

“And I’m not going to say ‘you’re muted.’”

Pollack was introduced by Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff, who praised the graduates for “advancing your scholarship during an extraordinary time.” By tradition, the deans presenting students for degree conferral attempted to outdo each other with descriptors for their graduates, from “unsinkable” (Graduate School) to “audacious” (ILR School) to “life-changing-making-the-world-a-better-place-than-we-found-it” (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences).

Pollack noted that the Class of 2022 was the first in which almost every member was born in the 21st century. “That means all of you are digital natives,” she said. “You grew up in a world of ubiquitous technology, and your lives have been shaped in countless ways by the communication, services, entertainment and careers that modern technology – including the internet – has made possible.”

She then discussed the distinctly 21st-century concept of “influencers” – people who curate their lives on social media in order to make others covet that idealized version.

A student wears a decorated mortarboard at the 2022 Commencement ceremony at Schoellkopf Field.

“I’d like to go out on a limb and make a bold assertion: that your influence should be measured not by how you present your life, but by what you do with it,” she said. “Each of you, as Cornell students who are soon to be Cornell graduates, has an extraordinary potential to be a true influencer – in the real world.”

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Rebecca Valli