Commencement 2024

Chancellor Diermeier’s 2024 Commencement Address

Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier addresses the graduating Class of 2024.
Chancellor Daniel Diermeier noted the exceptional ability of the Class of 2024 to overcome difficulties. (Vanderbilt University)

Parents, families and friends, members of the Board of Trust, esteemed faculty, valued alumni, dedicated staff and, of course, our graduates:

It is my great honor to join you in celebrating the outstanding, the exceptional, the unstoppable Vanderbilt University Class of 2024!

Graduates, today is a day to exhale, to let yourselves savor a deep sense of pride and accomplishment and to take stock of your Vanderbilt experience.

It is a day, to be sure, for thinking of all the things large and small that you love about Vanderbilt and that will make up joyful memories all your lives: things like the inviting shade of our oaks and magnolias, the Kirkland bells striking the hours, the dependable comfort of a Rand cookie or the frantic athleticism of our squirrels.

Graduates in black gowns and colorful stoles and cords listen to the Commencement proceedings at GEODIS park.
Class of 2024 graduates listen to Chancellor Daniel Diermeier’s address. (Vanderbilt University)

Maybe you’ll think of the belonging you felt in the stands, cheering like mad with the rest of Commodore Nation, or just the simple deliciousness of lounging in the sun with friends on a golden afternoon.

But today and throughout your lives, when you think of your Vanderbilt experience, I hope you will also reflect on the extraordinary journey you’ve completed—a journey you didn’t choose, but one you undertook bravely; a journey that is the reason I call you my “hero class.”

I will always feel a strong bond with the Class of 2024. We started our time at Vanderbilt together. And we’ve been through a lot: a pandemic, a bombing on Christmas Day, tornadoes and tornado warnings. So, what’s missing, in terms of challenges? Locusts! Well, we got cicadas.

There is a concept of heroism that comes to us from antiquity, in which glory is earned through the suffering of hardships and the overcoming of challenges—a hero’s journey, where bitter struggle leads not only to new heights, but to the transformation of the whole self.

That idea is encapsulated in the Latin phrase Per aspera ad astra: through difficulties—literally, through bitterness—to the stars.

The origins of this phrase can be traced to ancient myths and epic poems, and the idea is surely as old as storytelling itself.

In modern times, we know the phrase from novels and films about the brave exploration of space. It has been used at NASA to honor astronauts who gave their lives in the line of duty.

And, interestingly, per aspera ad astra also happens to be the motto of the state of Kansas. I will leave it to the good people of that state to say whether Kansas is the difficulty or the stars.

Per aspera ad astra. Through difficulty to the stars.

Class of 2024, this could be your motto, for it aptly describes your journey over the last four years.

There is a concept of heroism that comes to us from antiquity, in which glory is earned through the suffering of hardships and the overcoming of challenges—a hero’s journey, where bitter struggle leads not only to new heights, but to the transformation of the whole self. That idea is encapsulated in the Latin phrase Per aspera ad astra: through difficulties—literally, through bitterness—to the stars.

That journey actually began with an ending: the conclusion of your high school years just as the pandemic took the world in its grip.

Many of you were forced to finish school online. You missed your senior prom. You missed opportunities to compete in sports, to play music, to perform in theater and much more. And when those final days of high school finally sputtered to a close, you were not even given a proper graduation ceremony.

I know this was hard for your families as well.

A few months later, you came to Vanderbilt, arriving like no other class before or since in the university’s 151-year history.

What should have been your first exhilarating, liberating days of college were sanitized, sterilized, masked and distanced. Some of you experienced those days entirely online.

Your Move-In Day was unceremonious. Instead of the traditional raucous greeting from crowds of students and staff, you were asked to report to a symptom screening station.

Chancellor Daniel Diermeier speaks at the 2024 Vanderbilt Commencement ceremony. (Vanderbilt University)

Nonetheless, as your classmate Kai Mehra described so vividly yesterday, you soon bravely fell into a routine—even if your college experience was anything but routine.

There was the solitariness of living in your single rooms, and the meals you had to eat alone.

There were hybrid and remote classes, and the strange experience of watching your professors lecture through panes of fiberglass.

There were the suddenly ubiquitous Zoom chats that replaced club meetings and intramurals. There was texting and FaceTiming in place of what should have been late-night conversations in the common room.

First once a week, then twice a week, there were the treks to the Rec Center to wind your way through the picket fencing and awkwardly leave a saliva sample in a tube. This was followed by the anxious checking of your phones as you waited for the results to arrive, hoping fervently you would not be quarantined.

And perhaps most challenging of all, there was the fact that, too often, running into your fellow students at the testing center was the social highlight of the week. Because at a time in your life when social connections meant everything, we asked you to spend much of your time apart.

And, Class of 2024, this is the part of the story where you could have given up, but you did not.

You could have surrendered to hopelessness and self-pity, but you did not.

Instead, you chose grit. You chose resilience. You chose possibility.

I remember hearing a story from that fall, in which students on one of the floors of our residential colleges battled boredom and loneliness by mounting pull-up bars in the doorways of their rooms. Some days, every door would be open, and the hallway would be lined with students doing pull-ups, sweating and straining to the thump of loud music—everybody literally hanging out, doing their best to get through a hard time together.

Per aspera. Through the bitterness. The beasts you slayed and the mountains you scaled were many. And while it was not easy, it served you, and our university community, well.

You could have surrendered to hopelessness and self-pity, but you did not. Instead, you chose grit. You chose resilience. You chose possibility.

When we first announced our plans to have you live on campus that fall, let’s remember skeptics and the media said we were making a mistake. They said we could not count on you. They said people your age would not choose safety over immediate gratification. And they said terrible things about your executive functioning and your frontal lobes.

But you proved the doubters wrong.

You stepped up. You kept one another safe. And you made it possible for us to get through that difficult year successfully, in a way that showed the world new possibilities. Because at Vanderbilt, that is what we do.

Eventually, with the development of vaccines invented in part by Vanderbilt researchers, our nation and our campus began to return to normal. And you were finally free to have the Vanderbilt experience you had long imagined.

You had endured the difficulties. Now it was time to reach for the stars.

And reach for them you did: in your classrooms, in your labs, in our practice rooms and art studios and on our stages, on our athletic fields, and in your service to the community.

You learned—from life-changing books, from the words and examples of your professors and fellow students, from travels abroad and from hands-on experience.

You innovated, created, investigated and discovered. You mentored and were mentored.

Some of you reached heights you thought were beyond you. Some of you failed in ways that bruised you. Some of you learned the priceless lesson of how to challenge and support others while allowing yourself to be challenged and supported in kind.

And from the stutter-steps of that anxious and confusing first year, all of you, together, built a community—the one we celebrate here today, this cohort of very special people, the only other people on the planet who fully understand your college experience.

Class of 2024, in so many ways over the last four years, you have embodied the Vanderbilt motto. You have dared to grow.

Let me share one of my favorite examples—my first Move-In Day, in 2021.

It was a miserable day, with pouring rain. But, as is our tradition, there were hundreds of students, including many of you—in your pink and blue T-shirts, up since 6 a.m., heavily caffeinated and overflowing with Commodore spirit—welcoming the next generation of Vanderbilt students.

This was impressive enough on its own. And then, as I stood in the pouring rain, it dawned on me: So many of you, then sophomores, had never had the same experience. COVID had robbed you of your Move-In Day in 2020. But you were there just the same, warmly and enthusiastically welcoming the new incoming class.

I have told this story many times, to students, parents and alumni. Because it embodies who we are as a community—our resilience, our dedication to each other and our joy—even when things get tough.

After your first-year experience, you could have chosen to withdraw in bitterness and resentment and defeat. But you chose instead to reach outward, with generosity and compassion and grace.

For this, graduates, is the most important lesson of your experience.

The Greek Stoic Epictetus said, “We cannot control external circumstances … but we can control the way we choose to interpret them.”

Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl also spoke of this choice in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

A sea of mortarboards as the graduates sit waiting to process at Commencement 2024.
Members of the Class of 2024 listen to Chancellor Daniel Diermeier’s address. (Vanderbilt University)

Class of 2024, you have chosen your own way. And what you’ve learned on the journey will stand you in good stead.

As one of your classmates put it during that most challenging of years: “When we graduate, we’re going to look back on this time and think, ‘We overcame that? We can do anything.’”

And indeed, for the rest of your days, when life presents you with obstacles, loss and disappointment—and, spoiler alert, it will from time to time—you will have the invaluable faith that you can weather hard times and carry on, with your hopes and hearts intact, and no diminishment in what you have to offer the world.

And your resilience and spirit are a gift the world urgently needs.

You are leaving college at a moment in history as fraught as the one in which you entered. Society faces enormous challenges.

The world needs your skill, knowledge and know-how. It needs your capacity for collaboration and your ability to see issues from other perspectives. It needs your leadership. And it especially needs your exemplary resilience, your courage and your hard-earned, clear-eyed belief in the possibility of a better future.

There is an old saying that a college education is something no one can ever take from you. And the story each of you has written here—your individual, unique experience, with all its lessons and laughter and setbacks and some scars—this, too, is irrevocably yours, inscribed in your hearts, to treasure and draw strength from for all your life.

Class of 2024, we send you into the world now to write the next chapters of your stories. Your education at Vanderbilt is finished, but there is so much more to be done and an infinite universe of stars for you to claim.

I know you will continue to learn and grow.

I know you will continue to lead.

I know you will continue to choose joy and possibility and to rise to meet whatever challenges life has in store.

I know you will continue to make us all proud.

I wish you far more stars than struggle.

So go now, with the blessing of your alma mater, as educated and tested women and men.

Crescere aude, Class of 2024!

Anchor Down, and congratulations!