Two-Minute Commencement Speech

Kraig Adler
Photo: Frank DiMeo/University Photography

We asked professor emeritus Kraig Adler for a succinct commencement speech, with only two minutes on the clock. Ready, set, go!

One of my greatest joys as a Cornell professor has been to watch the remarkable transformation that undergrads undergo. Many freshmen, as I experienced in teaching introductory biology starting in 1972, came in thinking they already know a lot and that college was just an extension of high school. They were in for a shock. For them, the weeks seemed to go by very slowly. They couldn’t keep up with all the reading. The tests were too challenging. And they didn’t like the place. The word “hate” was even used, and some students were in tears. As I told many of them who came in for office hours, they may not like Cornell now, but soon they will figure out how to succeed here, and by the time they graduate they won’t want to leave. Surely none of them believed me at the time. 

You, too, are a different person now from the one who entered Cornell just a few years ago. You may not feel it, but your teachers know it. Your friends know it. And your parents know it. You have learned how to succeed here, and this is one of the most competitive campuses in America. To be sure, not everyone succeeds at the same level, but every one of you is more capable now than you were as a freshman. You have more self-confidence because you have prospered in a tough place. You are going to graduate! You know how to organize your life and establish priorities. You know what you are good at and what you are not so good at. (Both are important to know about oneself.) You know how to interact with a wide range of people from many different places. You know how to find information and think critically about it, how to teach yourself and how to make decisions. You are going to do well in this world.

When I look at the graduate students coming into my department from the best universities across America, I think about how they compare to the Cornell seniors we are sending out. I think our students are usually better prepared than the ones coming in. I thought that 40 years ago, and I believe it is still true today. I am incredibly proud of Cornell students and how quickly they mature while they are here. But now you have to leave. Some of you may be in tears now but not because you hate the place. You are going to be an alum! Not just for four years but forever. You have earned the Cornell label. Relish it.

Kraig Adler is a professor of biology emeritus in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.