ZACHARY BENFANTI: Good afternoon, friends and family, faculty, members of the administration, distinguished guests, and of course, most vital for why we're here today in celebration, members of the class of 2016.
My name is Zach Benfanti, and I am humbled to welcome you to the 2016 senior convocation ceremony and to the start of Cornell University's 148th commencement weekend.
Four years ago, each one of us made the choice to call Cornell home. Perhaps it was the academic reputation, the world-renowned faculty, the stoic, yet dynamic landscape that Cornell sits on. Or simply put, maybe it was one person who made it abundantly clear that the Cornell community would be strengthened because of you.
Now, four years later, there's no question in my mind that we are leaving Cornell a better place than we found it. Saying goodbye is never an easy thing to do. It is rare to find a place that embodies the aspect of home almost everywhere you turn. Yet Cornell endures. And we have an innate commitment to remain interwoven in the Big Red community.
Think of those reasons that made you want to come here in the first place. They probably have not gone anywhere. From freshman year O-Week to Homecoming weekend to Slope Days, too, every year, semester, month, week, and day that has gone by created countless opportunities for all of us. Maybe those opportunities led you to change your major, spend a semester abroad, or even alter your career ambitions.
The one constant amid every change at Cornell are the wonderful people who got us through the best and worst of times. Think back to your freshman year floor, your first meal at RPCC. These are the people who will remain lifelong friends and sources of inspiration.
Think back to your first class or that first professor who motivated you to capture your potential. These are the people whose sage guidance led us to where we are now. Consider your research team, club, sports team, or Greek house. These are the vehicles that made this big campus feel small, a home within a home.
We can all relate to the 2:00 AM Nasties nights as freshmen and 2:00 AM CCP nights as seniors. We have all drank more caffeine than ever thought possible at places like Libe Cafe and CTB, all in preparation for countless hours spent in Olin, Uris, and Mann, to name a few. Through late nights and early mornings, Cornell has never ceased to amaze in its ability to cultivate endless possibilities, to make a difference, all while being able to have a great time in between.
Though in less than 24 hours, our status may change from students to alumni, the past four years are simply an indication of what is to come. So be excited, be proud, but most importantly, be ready. The future is bright now that Cornell's class of 2016 is on the brink of influencing far more than what's just considered above Cayuga's waters. Congratulations to the class of 2016.
And now I would like to introduce our senior class president, John Lowry.
JOHN LOWRY: Thank you, Zach. Woo whee, is it hot. There's a student in our class. He's well-liked and popular. When he crosses the arts quad, people yell out his name and wave hello. His professors speak highly of him. In the day, he walks around campus rarely, if ever, alone. Some nights he goes to his work.
But the strange thing is when he puts on his work uniform, a black cap and shirt, he disappears. When he walks up to his position at the serving line at the dining hall, people don't recognize him anymore. His best friends and those who say hi in the day do not see him behind the glass at night. When the cafeteria closes up, he picks up the dirty dishes and plates left behind. He wipes the table, helps sweep the floors. At night's end, he walks home in the dark alone.
And the question we might ask is why, why this night-and-day divide? It's because, like all of us, often he is not seen for who he is but rather what he does. And for the past four years, I've grappled with why that is. Because that student who leads a double life, admired by day, hidden at night, is the same man at 10:00 AM that's he is at 10:00 PM. But to the outside world, he isn't.
Because what it means to clean tables and sweep floors and serve chicken wings is not the same as what it means to lead meetings and to wear suits and to give graduation speeches.
If we take a walk together down Tower Road to the neurobiology department, our professors can tell us why. The reason is that our brains are masters at classifying things, above all, the people around us. Mother Nature has primed us to evaluate where we stand relative to others, a constant calculation of clothes we do and do not wear, groups that we are and are not a part of, jobs and titles we do or do not hold.
Like many, we can accept this as a given part of life, an instinct handed to us at birth that we cannot change. But like all of you, I am a Cornellian and have learned that the easy answers to hard questions are rarely the right answers.
I believe that you and I may break out of the molds Mother Nature used to construct us, that we may appeal to our better natures, the natures not given to us but rather the ones fashioned by our own hands and our own minds here at Cornell. These better natures that we have made for ourselves are our educations, the pieces of us that complements the animal within all of us.
Now, some may claim that this internal battle, man and woman against nature, is a futile one. But we should remember that the world's greatest movements and ideas have emerged from those who had dared to challenge what others saw as futile, men and women who moved and changed and subdued what others took to be immovable, fundamental, natural.
It was one woman born into a country of segregation who refused to give up her bus seat, spurring a movement to tear down her surrounding walls of oppression. There was one man faced with a country that threatened to tear itself apart who rejected the very possibility, giving truth to the saying, a house divided against itself cannot stand.
And it was one self-educated farmer, placed in a world where education was a pursuit of the wealthy, who believed in something more, proclaiming, I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.
If Cornell has taught us anything, it is to not always think as others do, to not always be as others are, to not always take for truths what others take to be true. Ezra Cornell lived by these principles and so can we all.
As graduates of this university and bearers of his name, let's dedicate ourselves to what Cornell represented so many years ago and still represents today, living testaments to the saying, some men and women see things as they are and ask why. We dream of things that never were and ask why not.
Thank you, class of 2016. It's a pleasure serving you these past four years.
And now it is my great pleasure to introduce to you your senior class campaign co-chairs, Garrison Lovely and Natalie Rosseau.
GARRISON LOVELY: Thank you, John. My fellow Cornellians, if you are anything like me, you have been a bit of a wreck this past week. Realizing that groups of people you're surrounded by may never be in the same place at the same time again is somewhere between a bummer and complete emotional devastation.
But this is not the end of our time as Cornellians. My dad graduated from Cornell a short time ago, well, not so short. And he inspired me to make the most of my time here and get involved. He did this not because he was involved as a student, but because he wasn't. He was always very honest with me about how he wished he had been more connected to Cornell.
But it was not too late. He became the active alum he never was as a student. Every year, he sees old friends and classmates at Cornell events like Reunion, Homecoming, college events, city events, and more.
Every Cornellian I've had the pleasure of meeting at these events has said basically the same things. Their love and appreciation for Cornell has only grown since they left. Maybe it's because of nostalgia or the event's open bar, but this place prepares us for life after in ways that we can't really appreciate until we leave the Hill.
After tomorrow, we will disperse. But if you don't want this to be the end of your time with Cornell and the people here, then don't let it. Stay engaged with Cornell and the people you met here. I'm not saying we have to be in denial. Things will be different. But being an active alum can be as rewarding, or my dad's case, more rewarding as our experience as undergrads. And while we may be leaving this place, Cornell will stay with us, as it has for the hundreds of thousands who came before. Thank you.
And it is my pleasure to introduce my co-president and better half of the senior class campaign, Natalie Rosseau.
NATALIE ROSSEAU:: Thank you, Garrison. It is my absolute pleasure to be standing before all of my peers who I admire so much today as part of our graduation celebration. We did it.
I know that I speak for many members of the class of 2016 in saying that we could not have achieved this moment without the support of family, friends, faculty, staff, and so many others. These are the people who have believed in us when we did not believe in ourselves, have uplifted our spirits and given us strength, and inspired us to be better examples of leadership, service, and character.
Today and every day we have so much to be thankful for. And this is what the senior class campaign is all about, not only celebrating our own accomplishments but acknowledging those who helped us get to this moment with humility and gratitude. Throughout our journey at Cornell, we have been the beneficiaries of an immense network of support and inherited a legacy of gifts and service from hundreds of thousands of Cornellians.
Today, I want to thank the senior class for upholding this legacy and for their outstanding generosity. Over 1,000 seniors participated in the campaign, with especially strong participation from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations--
--the College of Human Ecology-- give them a hand, too--
--and the School of Hotel Administration.
Provost Kotlikoff, we are very proud to announce that the class of 2016 is contributing $50,000 to our university before we graduate.
Thank you, again, for your active participation and generous support. And now, please join me in welcoming the University Chorus and Glee Club as they sing The Hill by George F. Pond.
UNIVERSITY CHORUS: [SINGING] I wake at night and think I hear remembered chimes. And memory brings in visions clear enchanted times. Beneath green elms with branches bowed, in springtime suns, or touching elbows in a crowd of eager ones. Again, I'm hurrying past the towers or with the teams, or spending precious idling hours in golden dreams.
O, Cornell, of the kindly heart, the friendly hand, my love burns clear for you in distant land. O, fates that shape the lives of men, vouchsafe that I, before I die, may tread The Hill again.
O, Cornell, of the kindly heart, the friendly hand, my love burns clear for you in distant land. O, fates that shape the lives of men, vouchsafe that I, before I die, may tread The Hill again, may tread The Hill again.
ZACHARY BENFANTI: A renowned veterinarian, professor of molecular biology, former Austin O. Hooey Dean of Veterinary Medicine here at Cornell, the University's provost serves as the executive officer responsible for all educational affairs, including research and academic personnel. He has guided Cornell through one of the most difficult years in its history, with a steady display of strong leadership, poise, and integrity in all that he did, values fundamental in our institution's upbringing. Please join me in welcoming the 16th provost of Cornell University, Dr. Michael I. Kotlikoff.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Welcome, all. It's just another regular day in Ithaca, 90 degrees and hanging with James Franco. Once again, welcome to the class of 2016, family and friends of the graduates, and members of the wider community, as we celebrate the senior class convocation. Congratulations to all of you who are graduating tomorrow. And thank you, class of 2016, for leaving an outstanding legacy through your accomplishments during your time at Cornell and your generous support of future Cornellians.
I especially want to recognize convocation chair Zach Benfanti--
--senior class president John Lowry--
--and senior campaign co-chairs Natalie Rosseau and Garrison Lovely--
--for outstanding leadership on behalf of the class of 2016. The class of 2016 has chosen as its speaker someone who's career embodies the experimentation and energy of youth, as well as a remarkable capacity for education and insatiable creativity and more talent and daring than most of us could possibly imagine.
James Franco of Palo Alto, California dropped out of UCLA as a freshman to pursue acting, working at McDonald's to support his career. By age 19, he had a role in a TV series, Pacific Blue. And in 1999, after more than a year of intensive work with a drama coach, his breakthrough came in the role of Daniel Desario in Freaks and Geeks.
He brought a fierce intensity to the title role in James Dean, earning a Golden Globe award for Best Actor, and his career continued to accelerate. He's played Harry Osborn, the hero's friend in the three Spider-Man movies and earned a pilot's license to perform in the World War I movie Flyboys. And he has made many other film and TV roles, including in Milk, 127 Hours, and General Hospital.
But remarkably, 10 years after dropping out of college, Mr. Franco returned to education at a frenetic pace. He graduated from UCLA in two years, sometimes taking 62 credits in a single quarter, with a degree in English, a GPA over 3.5, and a novel as an honors thesis. He enrolled in four graduate programs at roughly the same time, one in filmmaking, two in fiction writing, and a low residency program in poetry.
He also received an MFA in fiction at Columbia University and entered Yale's PhD program in English. So Mr. Franco, thank you so much for your support of higher education through your tuition payments.
And James has continued to act and work, while taking classes in all these programs. He's directed a number of films, including Child of God, based on the Cormac McCarthy novella and Saturday Night, a documentary about the show Saturday Night Live. Mr. Franco has also ventured into art with a multimedia solo exhibition, published a book of short stories and one of poetry, and produced albums with his band, Daddy.
How he manages to do all of this and what is next continues to be the source of endless speculation by entertainment journalists as well as fans. In New York Magazine, writer Sam Anderson sums up Mr. Franco's career as systematically challenging mass cultural norms, erasing the borders not just between gay and straight, but between actor and artist, heartthrob, and intellectual, junk TV, and art museum.
We look forward to whatever comes next in Mr. Franco's career, as well as to his convocation address. Please join me in welcoming James Franco.
JAMES FRANCO: Thank you. I'm honored to be here. I'll just say a few things about myself. That's all I really know about. And it'll be brief.
Thank you. 20 years ago, I was almost a student here. Cornell University actually accepted me. I still tell people that I was accepted at an Ivy League school because, well, that's very impressive. It was the cold one in the middle of nowhere, but it was still an Ivy.
But way back when I graduated high school, I didn't leave California to join all the bright students here wearing face masks in the winter to keep out the wind chill. I went to sunny UCLA. Since then, I've been to a ton of schools and a bunch of these graduations, some good, some boring.
And being someone who's probably been to more of these than most, at least as a student, I can tell you that I remember very little from any of them, except for my high school graduation, when Steve Jobs spoke because his daughter was in my class. And he told us that before dropping out of Reed, he took a calligraphy class, which led to all the different fonts that are now available to Mac users. So take that as a lesson, learn calligraphy, and maybe you, too, will one day have a movie made about you starring Michael Fassbender.
But anyway, this being only your first college graduation, take it from me, you won't remember much of what I say today. But don't worry. Despite that, I'll still try to give you some of my best wisdom.
Now, if you know anything about me, you probably know that I've played a lot of characters who actively partake in the use of marijuana. Actually, that's often the only thing that people know about me. And I don't know whether I should take that as a compliment of my acting abilities, because I actually don't smoke weed, or if I just have a naturally stoner's demeanor that lends itself to movies like Pineapple Express and This is the End. Resting stoned face, you could call it.
But in fact, for most of my adult life, I've done the opposite of checking out. I've been struggling to find a way to check in. After not enrolling in an Ivy League school, I dropped out of UCLA because I knew that I wanted to be an actor, and I wasn't in their theater program. So I went to an acting school in the San Fernando Valley.
My parents said that they would no longer support me if I wasn't in college, so I got a job at the only place that would hire me, McDonald's. Now, as you can imagine, my parents were very proud of their son, who left a first-class education to work at the drive-through window. But at the time, I knew that I wanted to be an actor at any cost.
But what I didn't know was that I could actually act and go to school at the same time. If the me today could pull a Matthew McConaughey and talk to the James Franco of the past, I would say dude, you only went to one school. You couldn't act and go to school?
Now, if you know anything more about me beyond an odd talent for playing stoners and idiots, it's that I do a lot of things. After dropping out of school for McDonald's, I worked my ass off in acting school. I'd chosen not to play it safe and to follow my dreams, so I reasoned that I'd better work hard at it. No one was going to beg me to be an actor, just as no one will really beg you to do anything you actually want to do.
Olympic runner? Well, if you don't train it ain't going to happen. Biochemist? If you don't study that periodic table, you're not going to get those great pharmaceutical jobs. And if you want to go after something you love, it's simple. You have to work at it.
The film business is such a hard business to break into. I knew that if I was going to get anywhere, I needed to devote myself completely. If I wasn't taking orders at the drive-through, I was rehearsing scenes with my classmates. And often, if I was at the drive-through window, I was practicing different accents. Welcome to McDonald's, may I help you?
Now, fortunately, I booked a Pizza Hut commercial after three months, and I didn't have to work at McDonald's anymore. But I ended up going to acting school for eight years. Now, that's about as long as it takes to become a doctor. And even after I started working regularly as an actor, I went back to class. During Freaks and Geeks I went. I went after I won the Golden Globe for playing James Dean. I went while I was filming all the Spider-Man films.
I say this because there was a time when I wasn't an actor, when I was just a guy who loved movies and wanted to be a part of them but didn't know how. And I can look back on that time in my life and see that I was a person who had a certain level of talent, and that after years of hard work, that talent was developed into a skill that I could wield. I worked hard at something, and I saw results.
Now, the problem was that after eight years of acting professionally, I realized that I wasn't content. On the outside, it seemed that I had everything one could want. I was supporting myself as an actor. I was working on Spider-Man. I was working with people like Robert De Niro, Willem Dafoe, and Kirsten Dunst. But I still wasn't satisfied. Something was off. I wanted something more.
And what was worse was that I couldn't complain about it, because well, I'd look like a douche. Oh, poor you. You have to act in Spider-Man. Boo hoo. But in fact, I felt trapped. As an actor, I wasn't allowed to do all the things I was interested in. So I went back to school. And that's where my life changed.
When I'd been at school the first time, I was there as a compromise with my parents. But when I went back, I was there for myself. And that made all the difference. I wanted to learn. And if you know anything else about me, you'll know that I went to a lot of schools after that. I was addicted. I think some people actually wanted to put me away.
But what I found was that life is not a fixed journey. It is open. I didn't have to stay one thing. I could always be learning. After going back to school, I studied all the things I was interested in with incredible people in each of those fields. And now I not only act, I do-- well, I do everything. Well, not really. But I do everything that I'm interested in. Well, almost everything. I probably could have said no to that hosting-the-Oscars thing.
But the point I'm making is that because I pursue what interests me and excites me, my life is mine to control. And that's my little bit of wisdom to you. Don't be afraid to be beginners. Don't think that this marks the end of your learning. This should be the start. Now, you don't have to lose your mind and go to every school like I did.
But be a little bit like Steve Jobs. Every once in awhile, try a calligraphy class, because you don't know where it will lead. Just think, if Steve hadn't taken that class, we wouldn't have Cambria and Baskerville Old Face, Helvetica, [INAUDIBLE] medium, or Lucida sans unicode.
Now, here's just a few more suggestions that I think will make life better. Find your gang. Life is better when it is in the company of others. If you're a loner, that's fine. I was a loner once, too. But you will only get better at whatever it is you do if you have a group of similarly engaged people. They will give you feedback, inspire you, and hopefully do better work than you, and push you to rise to their level.
Do what you love, at least a little bit. And if you have to do something else in order to support what you love, do it. Hell, work at McDonald's. And if you really love something, you'll do whatever it takes to support that thing. I like to think that if I hadn't been cast in Freaks and Geeks when I was young and just didn't quite get a leg up in Hollywood, that I would still be making movies in some way or another, even if it meant I made my living by other means.
Do what you have to do to work on your passions, just don't get stuck in the side job. And if you find that you've worked yourself into a well-worn groove, then be a beginner at something. And don't ever let fear or the little demon that says you ought to do this and you shouldn't do that ever keep you from pursuing what you love.
And finally-- I found that this is the most important to me-- be generous. You are the elite of the nation. You're Ivy League, baby. You've obviously worked very hard to even be admitted here. And now that you've gone through the gauntlet, you're even smarter. Not everyone gets to have such an education. So when you have the chance, when you're that amazing biochemist or out in Wall Street snorting cocaine off hookers with Leonardo DiCaprio--
--take a little time to give back. I've been teaching for the past six years, not because I have to-- I have a job-- but because it's one of the most fulfilling things I've ever done. I've spent so much of my life focused on myself, developing myself as an actor and a poet and a novelist and painter and whatever. You get the point.
After doing all that, the opportunity to give back, to help others achieve their dreams, is such a relief. From someone who's been in some of the biggest movies ever made, who got invited to Lady Gaga's 30th birthday party, who's gone to half the colleges in the United States, one of the most satisfying things I've ever done is give myself to others.
So congratulations to all of you. You are the best our country has to offer. So please, go out, be generous, and be good. Thank you.
ZACHARY BENFANTI: Thank you, James Franco, for offering your words of encouragement and wisdom with us today. It is a distinct honor to hear you speak, and we are incredibly grateful that you are able to be here with us for this occasion.
Your terrific record of achievement, zest for education, commitment to creativity, as well as unparalleled versatility reminds us that ambition triumphs everything. Your passion and drive sets an example for each of us and is an embodiment of the Big Red spirit. On behalf of the senior class, it is my pleasure to present you with the 2016 Senior Convocation Medallion.
JAMES FRANCO: Thank you. Go, Big Red.
ZACHARY BENFANTI: I would now like to take this opportunity and introduce vice president for student and campus life, Ryan Lombardi, who will offer some closing remarks for us today.
RYAN LOMBARDI: Thank you, Zach. And thank you, Mr. Franco, for joining us today and sharing your thoughts with the class of 2016 and their families. We hope you enjoy your visit. As you heard, you may want to stop by CTB before you leave. Check that out.
To the class of 2016, congratulations. You sit here today on the eve of your graduation from one of the world's great institutions of higher education. And you have so much to be proud of. And to all of the family and friends and supporters here today, you, too, should be so incredibly proud of your students.
Now, many of you know that I'm just finishing my first year at Cornell. And I'm guessing you're just a little bit jealous that while your time is wrapping up, mine is just beginning. But like you four years ago, in my freshman year, I've learned a whole lot about this place.
I've learned that you really can't beat the atmosphere at a hockey game in Lynah, especially when we play Harvard. My girls thought they were supposed to bring Swedish Fish and throw them on the ice. I've also learned very recently that Slope Day is, in fact, the real deal.
But on a serious note, I've learned that you have had to work incredibly hard to be successful in completing your education here at Cornell. In fact, I was speaking with an alum from the '70s just a few weeks ago. Like many alumni from Cornell, he's had a successful career, many accolades, well regarded, and so on. And we were talking about his experience here.
He said, Ryan, you know, I went to some other Ivy League schools for my graduate education. They will remain nameless. But you know what, Ryan? They were easy. The hardest thing about them was getting accepted. Now Cornell, that's another story. The hardest thing about Cornell was getting through it. That's right.
Now, some have been critical of that, actually. I've heard that this year. Because you know what, there are real ramifications of the rigor of a Cornell education. It does take its toll. It can be brutal at times. And I'm sure most of us in this stadium today have felt that at some point. But the rigorous Cornell education also has its rewards, rewards that will pay dividends for many, many years. And just ask any alum with whom you interact or with whom you have the opportunity to see doing great work in our world.
So today, class of 2016, I challenge you to continue to pursue this life you have with rigor. Work as hard as you can to pursue your dreams, no matter what those may be. Now, I personally hope that you'll expend this energy and talent that I've seen this year in a manner that will advance our world's social good, but that's your choice. My only request is that whatever you do, you pursue it rigorously and relentlessly, because I believe that is, in fact, the only way you'll ever experience true fulfillment in life.
The last time I was on stage here in Schoelikopf Field was just about nine months ago at freshman convocation. I had the privilege that day of listening to one of the most inspiring and rigorous people I have ever met, president Elizabeth Garrett. Yes, that's right.
And on that day-- and I think it was just a little bit cooler than it is today-- President Garrett told the class of 2019-- she said, today, you embark on an adventure for the mind. The premise, of course, being that the ultimate outcome of a Cornell education is that you learn how to learn.
So class of 2016, I hope this adventure has been good to you. But please, as Mr. Franco said, remember that this adventure is not even close to being over. You're actually just at the beginning of a lifelong journey of knowledge acquisition. Let your mind continue to grow, and let the pursuit of your passions be relentless.
Now I'll end with the words of CP Cavafy, who so appropriately articulates the importance of the journey over the destination in his poem "Ithaca." An excerpt-- Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey. Without her, you would not have set out. She has nothing left to give you now.
Class of 2016, you have left an undeniable imprint on Cornell and on me personally. And for that, I thank you. But remember, your role in the Cornell family has only just begun. Congratulations.
Now, for those of you who are still here, if you would please rise and join our talented musicians in singing the Cornell Alma Mater.
UNIVERSITY CHORUS: [SINGING] Far above Cayuga's waters, with its waves of blue, stands our noble Alma Mater, glorious to view.
Lift the chorus, speed it onward, loud her praises tell. Hail to thee, our Alma Mater. Hail, all hail, Cornell.
Far above the busy humming of the bustling town, reared against the arch of heaven, looks she proudly down.
Lift the chorus, speed it onward, loud her praises tell. Hail to thee, our Alma Mater. Hail, all hail, Cornell.
[MUSIC - "MY OLD CORNELL"]
UNIVERSITY CHORUS: [SINGING] Oh, I want to go back to the old days, those good old days on the Hill. Back to my Cornell, for that's where they all yell, Cornell, I yell, Cornell, Cornell. Far above Cayuga's waters, I hear those chiming bells. Oh, I'm longing and yearning and always returning to my old Cornell.
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Critically acclaimed actor James Franco, best known for his roles as James Dean, adventurer Aron Ralston, and Harry Osborn in the "Spider-Man" trilogy, delivered the keynote address at Senior Convocation May 28, 2016, during Cornell’s 148th Commencement Weekend. The ceremony also featured an address by Senior Class President John Lowry and remarks by Vice President Ryan Lombardi.