Discovering the Stanford Spirit

Good afternoon everyone. I'd like to thank you for allowing me to share some thoughts with you today. I'm enormously honored.

At Stanford, we get to do a lot of great things. Beyond studying, competing, hanging out, and creating things, we find opportunities to ask big questions about ourselves, our lives and the universe. Today, I'd like to share with you my own spiritual journey and how it has shaped my life - because I believe we humans fundamentally share the desire to connect and make meaning of our lives.

I came into Stanford interested in studying science, and doing gymnastics. But spiritually, I was without a clear direction. I had attended a few Unitarian services as a child, but faith was not a big part of my upbringing.

As a freshman I took a class on American politics and was shocked to learn that only 15% of Americans believe that evolution alone could explain the origin of humanity. As a curious kid growing up in liberal Massachusetts, I always thought everyone accepted evolution, the same way everyone accepted gravity.

For a long time, I made science education my mission, and organized religion was my enemy. How could people believe that the world was 10,000 years old, or that eating beef or pork was bad, for you even against indisputable scientific evidence to the contrary? I became an atheist with a capital A. I studied philosophy in order to improve my ability to make logical and rational arguments. I argued with people about all the time. Once I tried to convince the guy with a “Pray for Salvation” sign to accept evolution. I was not successful.

Then, one day, a friend's off-hand remark sent me into an existential crisis. His simple suggestion that perhaps free will is an illusion consumed me for months. Every line of reasoning I tried led me to the same answer - that free will did not exist. That I was not the master of my fate. My powers of logic and reasoning were useless against the feeling that life had no meaning.

That was when I realized that I had to believe. I had to have, dare I say it, faith, that free will existed, that I was just missing something that would tie it all together. And when I realized that, then I knew I could not condemn people of faith to be merely sheep or fools. I had taken my own leap of faith and I could not to be a hypocrite.

At the same time, I found myself exploring the concepts of Zen Buddhism, and the 8 fold path spoke to me, as did Buddha's non-dogmatic approach to finding the way for oneself. While I am not yet a monk, I try to keep an open mind about the beliefs of others and I have learned a great deal about humility along the way. I must admit, however, that I am still quite an evolution "evangelist".

In sophomore year, I asked my classmates to share with me their stories, passions, and dreams. I'm always touched when I read this collection of entries, because they really reach the core of what Stanford is about. I'd like now read a few of the entries that our fellow students have shared.

I remember, and can never forget, when the poet Li Young Lee told us on the first day of class to write the whole urgent truth, to write the poem like the Death Angel's sword was at our necks, to write for life, because we only have one life.
I remember being a math nerd and the glorious days of solving Rubic's cubes

I live for the beauty, excitement and peace that comes to me when I discover something new.
I live to seek how God fits into my Life

I would like to follow the scent of my own interest and let it lead me to somewhere rich and powerful.
I would like to do an infinite list of too many things: alleviate poverty and injustice, travel the world, study the human brain, learn how to sing and more.
I would like to echo forever.

These words reveal the unmistakable character of the Stanford spirit. A spirit that resonates within all of us. Class of 2008, I would like to wish all of you a rich and meaningful future. We leave here today with many gifts and more than anything, I hope that we can use these gifts to make the things we touch, better. Thank you.

About the Speaker
Jason Shen is pursuing a co-terminal masters in Biological Sciences at Stanford University and writing an honors thesis on the ethical allocation of liver transplants. He is the executive director of Gumball Capital, a nonprofit the engages students with entrepreneurship for social change through microfinance.  He is also been on the Stanford Men's gymnastics team through the best four years the program has seen in over a decade.