The three best speeches I’ve ever heard have been given by presidents: former President George W. Bush’s 2021 address at SMU; former President Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention; and Martha Pollack’s 2023 convocation address.
I have seen twelve years’ worth of boys-schools’ convocations, which left me with limited expectations on the Sunday after O-Week. As President Pollack began her speech, though, comfortable behind her wooden Cornell University podium, I knew she was confident in her message. As her speech unfolded, I felt myself filled with hope. Hope for my future here. Hope for my classmates’ futures. Hope for the future of the school. And hope in knowing through all of Cornell’s rigid toughness, my classmates and I will make it through.
President Pollack said what she meant and meant what she said. As I watched the bob-headed woman make her way up the stage in the beating hot sun, I felt her conviction far exceed her small stature, filling Schoellkopf with confident reassurance. Her message was simple: this period of my life is going to be hard. It’s going to test the very limits of my patience. The winters will be cold, and the classes will tear me apart at times. There will, however, be a fire inside of me that fends off freezing temperatures and professors whose papers steal my weekends away. A powerful lust for progress that exceeds all other feelings.
Tough love is the best way I can describe her thesis. There is no deep and persistent progress without challenge and tumult, and that’s ok. As a new transfer student this year, I didn’t get that type of tough love at my last school. I heard messages of how what started there would “change the world.” There wasn’t talk of how actually pulling it off is hard — really hard. Progress won’t be dropped at my doorstep like an Amazon order, and President Pollack made me confident in knowing that my package will take ages to arrive.
In times of immense challenge, President Pollack urged us to “re-examine, reassess, reach out for help, try again. The important thing is to keep moving forward.” And it is. As a transfer student, it took longer for me to get here than it took most of you. There were moments when I doubted if I was on the right path. The waiting after all my friends opened their college decisions and shipped off to storied schools wore on me. I swam through a hazy period of heavy emotional challenge and deep uncertainty, but President Pollack helped me understand why I did. Life isn’t made for comfort or ease. It’s most fruitful when, as President Pollack said, “sail[ing] away from the shore of the comfortable and known, to find what is different and will challenge [me].”
She told me that my year-plus of misty direction was the exact reason I’m here. My quest to “take on the world in all of its complexity,” in her words, was exactly what led me up the winding road toward the shores of Lake Cayuga. That road is one us Cornellians have agreed to walk, a road that we often can’t see the end of. One on which we’ll carve out meaning amidst our steps.
People only give it to you straight if they care about you and I felt seen in the face of her tough love. I am strong in the hands of the Cornell community; I am ready for the challenging academic road that lies ahead.
At the end of President Pollack’s ten minutes, I looked over to my friend Alex. We compared the goosebumps on our arms. We didn’t need words.
Looking at it now, the reason these three presidents’ speeches stuck with me was because they were all about hope. Obama showed me the audacity of hope in the face of deep cynicism. Bush laid out a world in which immigrants with hope as their fuel could make a life in America. And President Pollack, she made me feel hope for my future that will carry me through these next three years, no matter the stakes.
Henry Schechter is a second year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. His fortnightly column Onward focuses on politics, social issues and how they come to bear in Ithaca. He can be reached at [email protected].
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