Convocation speaker Kumail Nanjiani at Barton Hall.

Be kind, be humble and drink water, Nanjiani tells Class of 2024

Convocation speaker Kumail Nanjiani wants the Class of 2024 to stay hydrated.

In fact, the actor, comedian, producer and Oscar-nominated screenwriter meted out advice to Cornell’s graduating class as sweet as a plate of warm cookies.

Introduced as “the man with the abs,” Nanjiani evinced very little of the comic-book tough-guy swagger seen in the Marvel Studios’ “Eternals,” in which he played immortal Kingo.

“Lead with kindness and empathy. It’s the best weapon in our fight to make the world better,” he said.

Yamatai Taiko was among eight student groups that performed at Senior Convocation May 23.

“If you are the recipient of kindness and sensitivity, acknowledge it,” he said. “Find them, tell them, thank them – you will never regret it.”

As the keynote speaker for Senior Convocation May 23 in Barton Hall, Nanjiani took time off from filming season 4 of Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” in which he has a recurring role, to urge vulnerability (“the three most important words are ‘I don’t know’”), being in touch with your emotions, and resisting the impulse to “thump your chest.”

In fact, after humbly listing a partial list of past speakers – Presidents Bill Clinton (2004) and Joe Biden (2017), science educator and entertainer Bill Nye ’77 (2019), former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, M.S. ’96 (2015) – he had shade to throw at only one: last year’s Convocation speaker, actor, comedian and medical doctor Ken Jeong.

Jeong claimed to be speaking to the first class that started and completed its education during a global pandemic. But Nanjiani said he was using faulty math. Last year’s class started in 2019, Nanjiani said, making this year’s class the first to start and complete its education under the shadow of a global pandemic.

The student-led event celebrated the accomplishments of the undergraduate Class of 2024.

“Looking at past speakers it’s an impressive list, but there’s one speaker I can confidently say I’m better at in math, and that’s Ken Jeong,” he said.

The student-led event celebrated the accomplishments of the undergraduate graduating class, and featured performances from eight Cornell organizations, from taiko drumming to a mariachi group – which performed a Spanish-language mariachi version of “My Way” that drew a standing ovation. Speakers, including Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, and Marla Love, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students, returned again and again to the many challenges of the COVID pandemic – as well as its unexpected gifts.

“Patiently we waited, we endured,” said Convocation chair Asha Prabhat ’24, adding that the difficulties of virtual classes and social distancing freshman year meant “we never stopped fighting to find meaning in everything we did here.”

Even as Prabhat and school administrators spoke of next chapters and bold futures, Nanjiani’s message was about having the humility to shift gears, to admit you don’t know everything.  

“You aren’t prepared for the real world because no one is ever prepared. Have you seen it? It sucks,” he said.

“Be OK with not knowing, and always check in with yourself,” he said before student performers in Class Notes took the stage. The actor, who appeared regularly on “The Colbert Report” and who, with his wife Emily V. Gordon, received an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay for the semi-autobiographical romantic comedy “The Big Sick,” had just one more thing to reiterate to the graduation class before they picked up their “Class of 2024” souvenir shot glasses.

“Drink a lot of water.”

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Lindsey Knewstub