Thirty-four years ago to the day, Stanford University alumna Sally Ride became the first American female astronaut to fly into space and orbit the earth.
Her story — one of hard work, milestones and unexpected trajectories, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne told a crowd of graduates, parents, friends and family members gathered at Stanford Stadium for the university's 126th commencement ceremony on Sunday morning — offers an outlook for the next chapter awaiting the Class of 2017.
Ride, who earned two undergraduate and two master's degrees in English and physics at Stanford, originally wanted to be a tennis player, but an ad in student newspaper the Stanford Daily inviting women to apply for NASA's astronaut program decades ago eventually led her to a seat on the successful launch of NASA's STS-7 space shuttle in 1983.
In orbit, looking down on earth, Ride reflected: "'It is so clear from that perspective how fragile our existence is,'" Tessier-Lavigne said.
"Graduates, to whatever heights you aspire, whether through expressing creativity, committing to service, building a family, advancing knowledge, driving innovation, leading organizations — give yourself space, step out of the fray, appreciate and be humbled by the beauty of life and the delicate connections between your life and the lives of others," he told the graduating class.
Sunday's ceremony, Tessier-Lavigne's first as president, emphasized themes of embracing the unexpected, bridging divisions and understanding others. The university awarded 1,659 bachelor's degrees, 2,402 master's degrees and 1,021 doctoral degrees. The undergraduate class represented 33 countries and from the university's graduate schools, 76 countries.
Commencement speaker Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, a Stanford alumnus and the first Latino immigrant to serve on the California Supreme Court, reflected on the context of his own family history. Cuéllar was born in Matamoros, Mexico, to parents who were educators. He and his brother traveled by bus and foot across the border to attend school in Brownsville, Texas, as young children, Tessier-Lavigne said in his introduction of Cuéllar, who earned a PhD in political science from Stanford and was appointed to the law faculty (and political science by courtesy) in 2001.
Cuéllar also held positions in the Obama and Clinton presidential administrations, working on legislation that impacted issues from crime prevention, immigration and food security to the repeal of the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
In his speech, Cuéllar recalled as a young boy, looking across a river that marked the dividing line between Mexico and the United States.
"I used to look across the other side at a place that looked cleaner and richer — because it was," he said. "As trucks rumbled north piled high with okra, I pondered how fate sorted the babies to one side of that border or the other."
His family eventually moved to California's Imperial Valley, where Cuéllar graduated from high school. He went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Harvard University, a law degree from Yale University and his doctorate at Stanford. The stark divisions of his early upbringing, however, stuck with him and became the foundation for a career in public service, he said.
As an example, he remembered a late-night bus ride from volunteering in San Jose back to Stanford, watching a bus driver calmly mediate a fight between two drunk passengers as Cuéllar listened to two other riders commiserating about the "pains of re-entering society" after prison.
"What these moments evoke is the difficulty of bridging divides: between people who disagree or even want to fight, between ideas difficult to reconcile, or simply between ourselves and those we encounter, as some I have encountered over the years, with starkly different lives," he said. "The opportunity to see these divides, to bridge them, now passes to you, 0-17.
"Keep at it and listen, because we rarely persuade people we don't understand," he said.
Cuéllar repeatedly spoke of looking to the "edge of your awareness" — to the divisions, the less understood, the untold stories at the periphery of history — as a powerful agent for change.
Cuéllar, who Governor Jerry Brown nominated to the state Supreme Court in 2014, also emphasized the value of public service, which he reminded graduates can take many forms.
Both Cuéllar and Tessier-Lavigne stressed that it is often the deviations from the planned or expected paths that yield the most opportunity.
Stanford's president recounted how after orbiting earth 95 times and traveling more than 2 million miles in six days, Ride and the NASA space shuttle crew were scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida but were diverted by bad weather. They orbited earth twice more before landing at Edwards Air Force Base, about six hours south of Stanford — in Ride's home state, Tessier-Lavigne said.
Her original plan to be a professional tennis player also did not pan out, but her achievements as a woman in space laid the groundwork for future girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers and for Stanford to become a "great place for women to study science," Tessier-Lavigne said. Since then, Stanford has produced more female astronauts than any other American college or university, he said.
"As Sally's story illustrates, sometimes our paths become more purposeful and gain more meaning through our experiences of detour and disappointment," he said. "Remember, what seems like a setback might be a better path, or an even better way home."
Beyond inspirational messages, tradition and pomp and circumstance, commencement was also fun-spirited at moments. Cuéllar began his speech with a prepared "hip-hop musical" inspired by the creator of popular musical "Hamilton" about Franklin Roosevelt, the beat provided by the snapping of the crowd's fingers.
And Stanford's traditional "Wacky Walk" delivered its usual creativity, amusement and appreciation. One group of students dressed as bees held signs that read "no place I'd rather bee" and "thanks for bee-lieving in me;" another group donned beachwear and carried Cardinal-red cardboard surfboards under their arms. One student held a sign that eagerly read, "Proficient in Microsoft Excel Hire Me!!!"
Others were more serious. A group of African-American women wore all black with black berets and posed for a picture with their fists in the air, an homage to the Black Panthers. Reminiscent of last year's commencement ceremony — which in the wake of the controversial sentencing of former Stanford student Brock Turner became a platform for protest for many students — a group of about seven students held signs this year protesting the university's handling of a separate, unidentified sexual-assault case. Their signs carried messages like "Her Brock Turner is graduating," "Hold Stanford accountable" and "Stanford do better for your students."
In closing, Cuéllar gave the graduates a final homework assignment: tonight, to write a letter to their future selves listing the "values at your core, what you did here that fed your soul, quenched your thirst for understanding" and, finally, "what's been at the edge of your awareness so you can place it closer to your core."