At the 132nd Commencement ceremony hosted last Sunday, Stanford’s 2023 graduates — gathered with family members and University faculty and administrators at Stanford Stadium — expressed heartfelt, celebratory and reflective sentiments encapsulating the emotional and fun atmosphere of the ceremony and their broader Stanford careers.
At the event, Provost Persis Drell recognized graduates for having completed their degree requirements, with Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne conferring their degrees. Commencement would be followed by graduates receiving their diplomas at their specific department or school ceremonies.
Graduates embodied a spirit of chaos and fun during the annual tradition of Wacky Walk, which saw students adorned in widely varying costumes. Tennis legend and “Never Have I Ever” narrator John McEnroe, who spent one year at Stanford as a student-athlete, was selected as the 2023 commencement speaker.
McEnroe, not lacking in humorous tennis analogies throughout his address, stressed the importance of humility, mental health and making bold moves with immense potential for growth in life.
“Know that the real victory in life is the long game — measure your success by how much you evolve, not necessarily how much you win. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. And for chrissakes, have the balls to say what you feel,” McEnroe said.
Lily Liu ’21 M.S. ’23 noted that Sunday’s ceremony took place on a hot summer day which, in addition to the reflective and fun atmosphere, played into “what makes Stanford’s commencement very unique.”
“Unlike some other commencement that might be more stately and formal, Stanford commencement is a chaos of fun. Think about going to a music festival and you will see people dressed up in such stupid costumes celebrating the end of their time here and all bathing in the California sun,” Liu said.
Even taking Stanford commencement in isolation, it carries emotions year-to-year, which stood out to Liam Fay ’23, who knew what to expect after witnessing his brother graduate at last year’s ceremony.
Fay said to The Daily that being in the commencement ceremony “was overwhelming but really exciting.” He also described it as a little less emotional than he expected it to be. “I think I was very unconflicted [and] just un-conflictingly happy,” he said.
Madhav Goenka M.S. ’23 said that commencement was something for which he held high expectations.
“I have been watching the Stanford commencement speeches for several years on YouTube from far away in India. I had really high expectations and actually being there in person felt like a dream. I had never thought that I would actually experience those videos myself,” Goenka said.
Goenka, describing McEnroe as having “a very outspoken personality” demonstrated over the course of an “authentic and relatable” speech, said that what resonated with him was that “As his powerful voice pierced through the vastness of the stadium, we all were there with him, sometimes accompanying our claps with laughter.”
Prior to commencement, Fay said that he only knew McEnroe through his father, who referred to him as “the tennis player who gets mad.” By the end of commencement, Fay found McEnroe to be a fun addition to the ceremony. “[Y]ou come into [commencement] expecting it to be very scripted and by the books and honestly boring,” Fay said, whereas McEnroe was “a bit of a wild card.”
Liu expressed a similar sentiment, describing McEnroe’s speech as “very energetic, very honest [and] down to Earth.” She said she was “really grateful for the message … to understand that failure in itself is still a valuable lesson, especially on a very overachieving campus.”
As a former worker at the Bridge Peer Counseling Center, Liu said that McEnroe’s speech especially resonated with her, having heard numerous anonymous student calls echoing concerns about the academic, social and emotional pressures of campus life.
“[W]e have a lot of expectations for ourselves and it’s important to recognize the harm of that and to kind of accept failure [and] to be the second best,” Liu said. “It’s important to celebrate you [and] to just have fun and not feel like you have to hold up to unrealistic expectation[s].”
Fay, describing the Wacky Walk costume that he and his friends had as “ghosts of Stanford past,” consisting of “six things that, for one reason or another, have entirely gone away or become a shadow of their former selves on campus. These six things were: Stanford Missed Connections, Cardinal Nights, Maus, Full Moon on the Quad, French House and the Open Door Policy.”
For his ghost, Fay chose Stanford Missed Connections — an anonymous Instagram page previously described as a space for Stanford students to express their campus “missed connections” and even shed light on issues that the University and students were “hesitant to address.”
“The idea was that we’re graduating seniors and we might be some of the last people to actually have experienced these things,” Fay said. “A lot of us miss the before times.”
Graduates’ reminiscence was reflected, as Fay said, when encountering many seniors reacting to his costume saying, “‘Oh I miss Missed Connections! Where is she? How is she doing?’”
Noting the predominantly undergraduate observance of Wacky Walk, Goenka said he and his friends “as graduate students didn’t hold back,” walking into the stadium in Spider-Man-themed costumes among other fellow grad students.
Liu, describing Wacky Walk more broadly as “a moment of self-expression” for Stanford graduates, said that she and her friends dressed up as ducks intended to be “fighting Duck Syndrome.” The University describes duck syndrome as “the idea that students are struggling to survive the pressures of a competitive environment while presenting the image of a relaxed student, like a calm duck gliding across a fountain.”
Having gone through commencement, Fay broadly reflected on what he would be taking away from his Stanford career and noted that he was proud of how he grew by interacting with others and himself.
“You get the most out of Stanford from how you interact with people. That’s what’s really changed me the most is the way that I’ve interacted with people and the way that I think I’ve interacted with myself,” Fay said. “I’m really proud of myself standing here having graduated. It took five years, but that’s okay. I’m proud of myself.”
Similarly centering her growth over her Stanford career, Liu said that she feels that learning to prioritize her joy and health was a huge part of her development. “That is not something you need to be earned after hard work, but rather something to be prioritized … being connected to yourself is so important,” Liu said.
Speaking about commencement and the entirety of his Stanford career, Goenka said that nothing lacked in “beautiful memories with friends who have now become family.”
“The commencement weekend was one of the most memorable moments of my life and I’ll play it in my head for the rest of my life. Coming from difficult circumstances in India and having studies at this great university has reminded me that anything is possible,” Goenka added.