The Class of 2021, Facing Their Futures with Optimism, “Radical Hope,” and the Promise of “Yet”

Graduating students leave with a unique, shared experience that has prepared them to be leaders that the world needs.

June 23, 2021

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Three students at the graduation celebration. Credit: Photo by Best Grad Photo Inc.

Students in the Class of 2021 celebrate their achievements at Stanford GSB’s ceremony. | Best Grad Photo Inc.

On June 7, 2021, Stanford Graduate School of Business honored the Class of 2021 during an in-person, masked ceremony. The event celebrated all that students had accomplished, acknowledging the hardships and triumphs that many faced and commending their resilience in navigating a year unlike any other.

During a year full of many firsts, the ceremony also parted from tradition. The graduating students, families, staff, and leadership in attendance heard from Jonathan Levin, the Philip H. Knight Professor and dean of Stanford GSB; Jennifer Aaker, the General Atlantic Professor and PhD ’95; and, for the first time, two student speakers. MBA students from the Class of 2021 Areeba Kamal and Emily Calkins were selected by a group of their peers on the Graduation Task Force.

Levin opened with his theme for this celebration: optimism. He spoke about how the Class of 2021 responded with optimism in so many instances, even though the year was not one that they had planned for, or expected.

“You contributed to and helped create the experience of online learning,” he said. “You planned and executed major events. … You started organizations. You engaged with each other on a wide range of incredibly complicated topics, including racial equity and politics. You formed strong friendships.”

Levin told the students that they are graduating at a time of enormous change, and that this is a time when their education will be most valuable to them.

“You’ve learned how to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, and to be adaptable and resilient, an incredible set of lessons for your career and life,” he said.

Aaker addressed the students next, and led with humor, commenting on the stark shift from a virtual reality to an in-person event: “It’s good to see everyone wearing pants.”

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You’ve learned how to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, and to be adaptable and resilient, an incredible set of lessons for your career and life
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Jonathan Levin

Drawing on her research and life, she shared three personal insights of what constitutes a life well-lived. Aaker encouraged students to embrace their unique dimensionality: “Keep making bold choices. We too often underestimate the upside and overestimate their downside.” She reminded students to take the mission to “change lives, change organizations, change the world” seriously, but not to take themselves too seriously and to use humor to share truths. Lastly, she emphasized how challenge, pain, uncertainty, and resilience create meaningful memories — from classmates bringing each other home-baked cookies during quarantine to the intimacy and connectedness at virtual TALKs. Those are the ones that build durable love.

Aaker concluded: “How can this knowledge of what is truly important in life drive you to be bolder, to harness humor intentionally, and to lead with love?”

Class of 2021 MBA student Areeba Kamal spoke next. Kamal opened up about her world being turned upside down in 2020. First, from the devastating loss of her mother, and then to the onset of COVID-19, followed by racial injustices, natural disasters, and political upheaval.

“What does it take to survive change, survive grief, survive a pandemic that wreaks havoc on lives and organizations and the world? It takes what philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope,” said Kamal. “Radical hope means looking past the darkness you have been plunged into, toward a future so joyful that you are compelled to bring it to life.”

Kamal then shared the radical hope that she had witnessed amongst her fellow classmates: in the projects they led in response to COVID-19, in the fearlessness with which the Black Business Student Association demanded measurable targets for increasing Black representation at Stanford GSB, and in how the Class of 2021 reimagined every aspect of their Stanford GSB experience.

Kamal ended by challenging her classmates to use their radical hope to tackle injustices and realize opportunities.

“You and I get to wake up every day for the rest of our lives and ask ourselves: How will I use my radical hope to bridge the gap between what is and what should be?”

Kamal’s pandemic tribute was followed by words from fellow MBA student Emily Calkins. Calkins spoke about the cornerstone of the Knight Management Center: “dedicated to the things that haven’t happened yet, and the people who are about to dream them up.” This phrase inspired a shift in how she viewed the now-common phrase “unprecedented times,” from a reminder during the pandemic of how she and her classmates were let down to evidence of how much they have learned from the experience of living through the unexpected.

Calkins shared two lessons with her fellow classmates. The first is that living through an unprecedented time together helped the Class of 2021 prepare for a career and life of “haven’t happened yet” things. The second lesson is that the most important word, and her favorite word, in the cornerstone is “yet.”

“Because it’s a tiny word with a humongous amount of courage and optimism and self-belief embedded within its three-lettered walls,” Calkins said.

Stanford GSB students were invited to participate in Stanford University’s commencement ceremony for advanced degree candidates held on Saturday, June 12, 2021, at Stanford Stadium.

The ceremony celebrated 397 graduates who earned degrees in 2021:

  • 371 MBA degrees
  • 21 PhD degrees
  • 5 MSx degrees

Of those graduates, 10% earned a joint degree:

  • 16 Master of Arts in Education
  • 12 Master of Science in Environment and Resources (E-IPER)
  • 5 Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD)
  • 3 Master of Public Policy (MPP)
  • 1 Master of Science in Electrical Engineering

Certificates in Public Management and Social Innovation were awarded to 155 graduates.

Arjay Miller Scholars are recognized as the top 10% academically of the graduating MBA class. This year, 41 MBA students received this award.

Joshua Young Yang was selected as the Henry Ford II Scholar for academic achievement.

The 2021 Ernest C. Arbuckle Award winner was Emily Calkins. The recipient of this award is chosen by graduating students for having contributed to the fulfillment of the goals of the school by their actions within the school and society.

Donald Muir earned the Alexander A. Robichek Student Achievement Award in Finance.

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