Stanford graduation celebrates optimism, innovation, humor

In joint address, Bill and Melinda Gates urge graduates to turn toward, not away from, world's suffering

Philanthropists and innovators Bill and Melinda Gates encouraged Stanford University graduates at the university's 123rd commencement Sunday, June 15, to draw upon genius, optimism and empathy to create global change.

In an address that balanced the lighthearted and the troubling, the couple shared personal encounters with the world's poor and ostracized, bringing to light the importance of seeing suffering firsthand. The world's toughest challenges — and most heartbreaking circumstances — should serve as impetus for change, not sights to shy away from, they said.

The Gateses addressed Stanford graduates, faculty, staff and families and friends in a morning ceremony at Stanford Stadium. This year the university awarded 1,687 bachelor's degrees, 2,315 master's degrees and 1,006 doctoral degrees. Stanford President John Hennessy said 1,113 of the students receiving graduate degrees Sunday represent 83 countries outside the U.S.; 135 of those receiving undergraduate degrees represent 51 countries outside the U.S.

Bill Gates told the crowd that Stanford students already embody world-changing ambition, as well as the intellect to develop practical solutions.

"This is where genius lives," he said. "There is a flexibility of mind here — an openness to change, an eagerness for what's new. … There's an infectious feeling here that innovation can solve almost every problem."

And the enthusiasm, he added, is on point.

"Some people call you nerds — and you claim the label with pride," Melinda Gates said.

"Well, so do we," Bill Gates replied as the couple put on plastic, black-rimmed glasses held with tape in the center, to laughter from the audience. The glasses have become an increasingly familiar reference to "Nerd Nation," the popular nickname used often in Cardinal sports.

Beginning with his early days as a computer programmer, Bill Gates recounted how a spirit of optimism has fueled his desire to "empower people everywhere and make the world much, much better," he said.

One of Gates' goals was for technology to benefit everybody, both the well-off and the under resourced. He said he made it a priority at Microsoft to donate computers to public libraries in the United States and abroad.

But a business trip to South Africa, and the poverty he witnessed in the township of Soweto, soon took these goals beyond the motherboard.

"When I gave my prepared remarks to the press, I said, 'Soweto is a milestone. There are major decisions ahead about whether technology will leave the developing world behind,'" he said. "(But) as I was reading those words, I knew they were irrelevant."

"What I didn't say was, 'By the way, we're not focused on the fact that half a million people on this continent are dying every year from malaria. But we're sure as hell going to bring you computers,'" Gates said. "I was so taken aback by what I saw that I had to ask myself, 'Do I still believe that innovation can solve the world's biggest problems?'"

"Seeing hell didn't reduce my optimism; it channeled it," he said.

Melinda Gates took to the podium and recounted her travels to India, during which she spent time meeting women in prostitution, many of whom had no other way of making a living after being abandoned by their husbands. She also told the story of a woman severely afflicted by AIDS, near death, but who was ignored by hospital workers due to the stigma of AIDS, she said.

"I felt completely and totally inadequate in the face of this woman's death," Gates said. "But sometimes it's the people you can't help who inspire you the most. ... If you want to do the most, you have to see the worst."

The Gateses also discussed the meaning of optimism — both in the context of the foundation's philanthropic efforts and graduates leaving Stanford to pursue their next steps.

"Optimism is often dismissed as false hope. But there is also false hopelessness," Bill Gates said. "That's the attitude that says we can't defeat poverty and disease. We absolutely can."

"Optimism for me isn't a passive expectation that things will get better; it's a conviction that we can make things better — that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don't lose hope and we don't look away," Melinda Gates said.

Stanford Provost John Etchemendy presented various faculty awards Sunday, including the Walter J. Gores award for teaching excellence to Dennis Sun, a Ph.D. candidate in statistics; Stanford Law School lecturer Randee Fenner and Anne Beyer, associate professor of accounting in the Graduate School of Business.

He also presented the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel award for enrichment of undergraduate education to Miles Sevier, a senior in computer science and coterminal M.S. candidate in computer science; Ken Savage, senior in drama/theater and performance studies and coterminal M.A. candidate in communication; Ivan Jaksic, director of the Bing Overseas Studies program in Chile and an Iberian and Latin American Cultures lecturer; and Rush Rehm, a theater, performance studies and classics professor.

Robert D. Simoni, Donald Kennedy chair in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of biology, won the Kenneth M. Cuthbertson Award for service to Stanford.

Sunday's commencement ceremony followed the "Wacky Walk," the annual entertaining, non-traditional processional of graduating students walking into the stadium.

This year's walk included a group dressed as "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" from the children's book of the same name and another group attending as Noah's Ark. There was also a Stanford rendition of popular card game Cards Against Humanity, with one female student holding a poster that read, "What never fails to liven up a party?" and others holding responses like "President Hennessey" and "the smell of CoHo." Solo costumes ranged from the Microsoft Word paper clip — a nod to Bill Gates — to a male student dressed as a tropical drink, complete with a cocktail umbrella.

Numerous graduates also chose to cover their mortarboards with "IX" in red tape in solidarity with senior Leah Francis, who has been protesting against the university's handling of her sexual assault case and its compliance with federal gender-equality law Title IX. Francis headed into Stanford Stadium during the Wacky Walk carrying a banner that read, "We #StandWithLeah Stanford University, will you?" along with a roll of red tape which she used to tape fellow students' caps.

Peri Unver, who graduated Sunday with a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology, said that graduation felt "surreal."

"It's been a long time coming," she said.

View a video of the complete ceremony here.

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