Four years ago, the Class of 2023 started its academic journey at Cornell excited, nervous and probably a little scared, President Martha E. Pollack said to graduates at Commencement, held May 27 at Schoellkopf Field.
“You’re a different person than you were when you arrived here. Like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ you started down a path, when you couldn’t see where it would end,” Pollack said. “And like Dorothy, you kept going, even as you met challenges along the way – some of which you’d never imagined.”
Cornell’s 155th graduating class comprises approximately 9,000 students, including nearly 5,000 graduate and professional students and around 3,900 undergraduates. Ceremonies took place at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. to reduce crowd size. In the morning, the sun shined as graduates and their families took smiling selfies and group photos, some holding bouquets of flowers and red and white balloons.
In her speech, Pollack reminded the graduates of a piece of advice she’d offered four years ago: to take off their headphones, to be present in the moment, to connect with people and experiences, and to listen to the points of view of people with whom they disagreed.
“I reminded you that it was OK, and normal, to struggle sometimes,” Pollack said, “that a Cornell education is rigorous, and if you never struggled here, it probably meant you weren’t pushing yourself hard enough.”
She likened their personal and academic journeys at Cornell to Dorothy’s in the classic 1939 film.
When Pollack first saw the movie as a child, she said, she found the flying monkeys terrifying. She understood why the Tin Man wanted a heart, and why the Scarecrow wanted a brain. But what good would the Lion’s courage do against those terrifying flying monkeys?
Fifty years later, when she was named the president of Cornell, she knew the answer. Yes, she was scared, she said: “To have been anything else would have been either incredibly arrogant or incredibly ignorant.”
But by then, she said, she’d learned an important lesson: “That courage doesn’t mean not being scared. It means having the capacity to move forward, despite being scared.
“And I’ve also learned that if you don’t take risks – if you don’t walk intentionally, thoughtfully, into situations that will challenge you, and are therefore inherently scary – if you don’t do those things then you’re not going to have the impact that you could have on the world, and you’re not going to be personally satisfied,” Pollack said. “Any new step, any big change, carries risks.”
She was introduced by Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff, who told the graduates “we could not be more proud of what you have achieved in this beautiful and inspiring place.” Deans presenting students for degree conferral attempted to outdo each other in describing the graduates, a Commencement tradition, from “life-changing” (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) to “superb, spirited” (ILR School) and “world-building” (College of Art, Architecture and Planning).
At Cornell, Pollack said, the graduates have learned how to live in and appreciate a diverse community; to engage across difference; to listen to other voices; and to speak their own minds.
“You learned, I hope, the value of free expression: that indispensable condition, as Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo put it, upon which all other freedoms are based,” Pollack said. “All of that, everything you learned here, has helped shape the person you’ve become; and you’ll draw on it all, in the years ahead.”
The graduates have developed the courage to move forward, even when it is uncomfortable – especially, Pollack said, when listening to people who say things that are at odds with their most dearly held beliefs.
“When we understand the value not only of our hearts, and our brains, but also our courage – that’s when we’ll be able to do the most we can, with everything we sought and found, in this, our own green city on the hill.”
At the morning ceremony, about 3,200 graduates attended, along with 10,671 guests; in the afternoon, about 2,820 graduates attended, along with 9,676 guests.