Actor and comedian Ken Jeong speaks at Senior Convocation in Barton Hall.

‘Be fearless, be adaptable,’ Jeong tells Class of 2023

Perhaps no group of new graduates is better equipped to handle life’s unknowns than the Class of 2023 – the first whose college careers spanned the entire pandemic, actor and comedian Ken Jeong told graduates at Senior Convocation in Barton Hall on May 25.

From campus shutting down in the spring of their freshman year to months of classes on Zoom, then hybrid instruction, a return to normal and finally graduation, the Class of 2023 has already honed a critical life skill, Jeong said: adaptability.

Ryan Lombardi, vice president for Student and Campus Life, addresses the crowd at Barton Hall.

“Dare I say, you’re the most adaptable class who’s graduated college in recent memory,” said Jeong, who is also a licensed physician. “Dealing with COVID, it’s about being adaptable. And success, true success, is based on adaptability – how well one can react to the inevitability of change.”

For Jeong, a major change came with his 2006 decision to pursue a career in Hollywood full time, after having graduated from prestigious schools, completed a residency and practiced medicine. All those experiences, he said, had provided valuable education, discipline and preparation to be a professional.

“But none of those things matter as much as being fearless,” he said. “And that is a gut check I challenge all of you to do as you go on your respective journeys: Be fearless, make bold choices.”

Some of Jeong’s are now well known: jumping out of a car's trunk naked as the Asian mobster Mr. Chow in the “The Hangover,” the movie that catapulted his career, or walking off a TV show set in protest, which he did as a panelist on “The Masked Singer.”

“Don’t be afraid of life, and you'll inspire others,” said Jeong, who has also been a vocal antiracism advocate.

Jeong recounted grappling with the difficult choice to give up a successful and stable medical career that fulfilled family expectations to pursue comedy instead. After his feature film debut in “Knocked Up,” Jeong went back to working as a doctor but said he felt stuck, irritable and depressed, believing he had more to achieve in show business. But he said a cloud lifted when he quit his job, crediting his wife, Tran Ho Jeong, who is also a physician, with encouraging him to think outside the box.

“Medicine wasn’t a bad choice, I’m just saying that it wasn’t my choice,” he said. “It was out of fear, fear that if I acted in doing what I do truly love to do – comedy – I would fail miserably.”

Jeong told the graduates he’s a living example that they need not always know where their lives and careers are headed.

“You can’t predict where life is going to go, so you have to be open to possibilities,” he said. “Be fearless, be adaptable. That is my challenge to you.”

Noting the Writers Guild of America’s ongoing strike, Jeong joked that he’s looking for work and continuing to adapt, saying he might consider going back to school, perhaps auditing Cornell’s “Intro to Wines” class.

The celebration in Barton Hall also included congratulations and words of advice from Marla Love, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students in the Division of Student and Campus Life, and Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life.

The dance group Break Free performs at Convocation.

Yasmin Ballew ’23, chair of the 2023 Convocation Committee, also praised her fellow graduates for emerging stronger from the pandemic and other crises, like racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder.

“During our time on the hill, we’ve witnessed moments that have tested our collective conscience, we’ve engaged in difficult conversations, challenged our own biases and sought to create a more inclusive and compassionate society,” Ballew said. “It is through this self-reflection and growth that we have become catalysts in the collective effort to do the greatest good.”

Additional student speakers included Richmond Addae ’23; Selam Woldai ’23 and Rumbidzai Mangwende ’23; and Courtney Davis ’23, who introduced Jeong. Dance group Break Free and a capella group The Key Elements performed.

While encouraging the graduates to be adaptable and fearless, Jeong also said they deserve a break. Society is burned out from the pandemic, he said – and especially students who have been trying to complete their studies and establish themselves.

The Cornell community enjoys Ken Jeong’s speech.

“There is a stop-and-smell-the-roses factor that I think is beneficial to you guys, because the one thing that’s more important than success is your health,” Jeong said. “So exhale: You did it. This is no small feat and do not take this for granted. Because you’re Cornell, you’re the cream of the crop.”

After navigating the challenges presented over the previous four years, he said, the graduates are well positioned to take on whatever comes next.

“You had to adapt in a major way,” Jeong said. “You are ready to succeed in the real world, because quite frankly, you already have.”

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Abby Kozlowski