When actress, producer and writer Constance Wu was racking her brain to find some wisdom to impart to the Class of 2022 at Senior Convocation, all she could think was “I don’t know.”
“That’s when I was realized: That’s it. I don’t know. Those three little words,” Wu told the thousands of graduating seniors at Barton Hall May 25. “Those words are the best thing I can tell you about.”
Saying “I don’t know” can be difficult, she acknowledged, but it can also be freeing. It’s a sign of character. It shows others that you are willing to learn.
Despite her initial struggle, Wu displayed plenty of wisdom – and irreverent humor – in her keynote address, which she began by thanking the Convocation committee for inviting her, “a former B-, C+ student to speak at this very A+ school.”
After receiving that invitation, Wu decided she need to research Cornell’s history and she learned about the university’s original endowment, its land-grant status and Ezra Cornell’s founding spirit of “Any person, any study.”
“Even 157 years later, hearing the promise in the words that became your motto was heartening. Especially coming from Hollywood, where until only very recently, stories considered worthy of telling all look kind of the same,” said Wu, whose hit film “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first studio movie in more than 25 years to star an Asian-American woman. “So as someone coming from Hollywood, I was a little skeptical. I was like ‘any person, really?’ That’s when I dug deeper and learned about Cornell’s incredible history of inclusion and diversity.”
Her research included looking up unique courses that the university offers.
“I found a course called Intro to Wine and I booked my flight immediately,” she said.
More seriously, Wu said she was interested, as well, in learning about how Cornell students coped during the last two years.
As someone who studied at a performing arts conservatory, she noted that drama students are good in a crisis because they thrive on drama and also believe the show must go on.
“That is why I was curious about your drama these past four years and how your show went on,” she said, “even through a global pandemic.”
While the pandemic may have helped students dodge a few mistakes, such as regrettable hookups, sometimes mistakes can be a good thing, Wu said.
“Of course, I’m not advocating for your failure. But as you descend from the hill this weekend and make your way to whatever chapter awaits, knowing that you can survive big misses is exactly what might inspire the big swing that manages to connect,” she said. “Because it’s not about failure, but what you do with it. I mean, you guys couldn’t control a pandemic, you couldn’t control social restrictions, but you did what you could with it. And your lives will be richer for having those tools.”
Also delivering remarks at the ceremony were President Martha E. Pollack, Marla Love, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students, Convocation Chair Lotoya Francis ‘22 and Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life.
Senior Convocation also showcased a variety of student performances, including the taiko drumming group Yamatai, the African Dance Repertoire, a cappella group Class Notes and poet Nasra Ismail ‘22, who read a piece dedicated to the Class of 2022.
“Whether in person, hybrid or online, we have nurtured our paths and began to branch our seeds into the world,” Ismail read. “Like a plant whose spores have gone on into the wind, we are all part of Cornell’s diaspora, its garden of scholars.”
Since 2006, Wu has acted in dozens of films and TV shows, and she recently launched a production company and wrote a memoir. Her big break came when she landed a starring role on the TV show, “Fresh off the Boat,” which aired from 2015 to 2020 and was the first TV show led by Asian-Americans to ever reach syndication. The role earned Wu multiple nominations from the Critics’ Choice Association for Best Actress in a Comedy Series and a spot on Time Magazine’s 2017 list of “100 Most Influential People.”
Wu recounted how, when she began work on the show, she was so new to television she didn’t know any of the terminology, such as “forced call” or “honeywagon” – the latter of which is slang for a mobile restroom.
“I was too afraid to ask, too afraid to say ‘I don’t know what that means.’ See, because by the time most actors have reached the level of a TV show like ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ they’ve climbed the ladder a little bit, so they know these things,” she said. “Even the child actors seemed to know more than I did. ... And they had an excuse for not knowing, they were kids. I was 30. People assumed I knew what I was doing. There was a lot of expectation, and I was constantly paranoid of being found out and fired at any moment.”
After two seasons on the show, she finally admitted that she didn’t know. Rather than being banished from ever working again, she found that people were glad she asked for help and were happy to share their knowledge.
“Why had I been so afraid of it? I spent two years in my dream job wasting time and energy on that fear,” she said. “So guys, when you leave here and consider if you should pick up those three little words, think of all you might accomplish without that wasted energy, pretending. Think of all the extra life you might get to enjoy. You might even be able to laugh at yourself. Admitting that you don’t know or that you need help professionally, psychologically, emotionally, it’s not a mark on your record. It’s just part of the story of life.”
While the Class of 2022’s experience over the last four years may not have been the story they were expecting, Wu said, they should be proud of it. They made it a story to remember.
“Persistently and faithfully rising to the occasion, showing up when it isn’t convenient or pleasant, staying true to yourself, even in the face of rejection and despair, well, that’s often the starting point of incredible things,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what you all are going to do in this life. I don’t know what’s going to happen. And that’s what makes it fun. So go out there, make your story and have some fun.”