Of the various events leading upto commencement ceremony, Joe Biden’s speech was probably the most looked forward to. It was great to hear him speak, live and in person. His speech emphasized treating others with the dignity you expect for yourself, the classic American ideal of equal access to opportunity and a call for students to engage with social systems that are broken. But Biden’s speech was not the one that resonated the most with me.
Cornell’s Phi Beta Kappa Society held a reception for its graduating seniors and the faculty president, Professor Daniel Schwarz delivered a speech. In it, he quoted from C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka”. Here’s the poem, as I found it on Cavafy’s archives. I might be violating some copyright laws or licenses here.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
The italicized portion is what the Professor quoted. Apart from the literary merits of the poem and masterful use of themes from the Odyssey, and the cute Ithaca-Ithaka link, I felt a very personal connection to it. I’m ambitious and driven, like many of my classmates at Cornell. We seek successful lives, our Ithakas, in various forms: impact, fame, money, scientific discovery, or brilliance. If we achieve that success at a young age, we appear even more successful. The sooner I arrive at my definition of success, the richer I expect my life to be.
What Cavafy says is that the destination itself has nothing to offer me. Becoming CEO of a top tech company alone will not make my life richer. What will be rich are the experiences, ups and downs and wisdom I will gain on the journey. Still, this does not undervalue the ends. The ends are what motivate me to set out on the journey in the first place.
What does all this translate to practically? When I was in high school, it was a dream to study at an Ivy League university. Now I’m graduating with a degree from one. But this degree alone means little. It might open a few doors for me in the next few years and some people might hold me in higher regard for it. But going forward what will really matter is what I’ve actually learnt and who I’ve become in the last four years.
What a perfect segway to the other impactful speech on commencement weekend. Cornell’s new president, Martha Pollack, also addressed the graduating class. Part of her speech was framed by, “Your values have power.” I have learnt a lot from my classes at Cornell which are great for the job market. But what I cherish most will be the values I’ve embraced here, some of which President Pollack’s speech touched upon:
- Commitment to Service
Cornell is a land grant university. It has deep roots in public service, especially when it comes to applying scientific research and knowledge to benefit society. An alum and fellow blogger explains this beautifully in What does ‘Land Grant’ really mean and why you should care.
- Elite yet Egalitarian
This is enmeshed in Cornell’s ‘Any Person, Any Study’. The fact that I could attend Cornell and graduate from it is enough evidence of Cornell’s egalitarianism for me. Cornell also has partnerships with several community colleges in NY state, allowing many of their best students a chance to transfer to Cornell for their junior years. Some of my friends who had transferred this way have given me a picture of the United States which I could not have traditionally found in the Arts Quad or West campus’ frat rows. Also, the same fellow blogger has a lot to say on this: Elite, Not Elitist.
- Love and respect for nature
If I have to explain this to you, please just look at Cornell’s campus!