Hello. I am Persis. Every four years, we inaugurate a President, and every four years, I take this moment to reflect on what it means to be an American. For each of us, it means something different. I just want to share with you what it means to me. This is a personal story. Each of you will answer the questions I am about to address in a different way.
The first question I ask myself is: What do I mean when I say I am an American?
I get asked all the time – where does your name “Persis” come from? Are you Greek? Are you Persian? And I always answer, well, the word “Persis” is Greek and it means “a woman from Persia,” but I’m not Greek and I’m not Persian, I’m American. I’m a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
For me, being American has nothing to do with the accident of being born in Boston. It has much more to do with the mixing pot of values, cultures and backgrounds that I emerged from.
To me, being American means that my father’s parents were not born in this country. They fled racism and religious persecution in Eastern Europe. They left everything behind and came to this country determined that their children would grow up in freedom and get an education.
My mother’s mother was one of six sisters and one brother growing up in Rushford, Minnesota. My great grandfather died young, and the family had a very difficult time, splitting up and living with various relatives to have a roof over their heads. Amazingly for the early 1900s, the family prioritized education, even for the daughters.
To me, being American means that the six sisters could pull each other up the educational ladder, one by one. The oldest sister, my great-aunt, was named Persis, which is where I got my name. It is a family name and has nothing to do with being Greek or Persian. It is in the Bible and was in the family for generations.
My mother’s father was a planter in Mississippi and his family was on the losing side in the Civil War. We don’t really know how he and my Minnesota grandmother met. She was a schoolteacher.
Being American – to me – means that two of my grandparents were Jewish. Two were Protestant.
My father grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and worked his way through college, going to Princeton as part of the Jewish quota allowed in at the time.
My mother was born and raised in rural Mississippi. And her mother insisted she had to go north and get an education. And she did, at Wellesley College.
My parents met at University of Illinois where both were pursuing graduate studies. I always marvel at random chance that brought them together from such different backgrounds.
To me, being an American means that my family is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and education has been the great enabler for us regardless of our background.
And while my parents’ story seems a series of improbably random occurrences, I believe it is the norm and not the exception. And I believe many of you have similar family stories with equally random events deciding the course of your lives. And I don’t think those stories could have been written so many times in any other country but ours.
And education, for so many of us, has been the route to personal happiness, professional happiness, and perhaps most satisfying, the route to being able to contribute to society.
And when I say I am an American, I mean that my arms are open to the people who arrive on our doorsteps today, with the same dreams for the future that two of my grandparents had when they arrived here 100 years ago.
The great strength of our country is that so many of us have backgrounds similarly or even more diverse. This diversity of backgrounds and thought and approach is not only this nation’s heritage, our shared experience, but it is our strength as a country. This country is built on a foundation that you have a place here regardless of your background. You have an opportunity to learn and grow — not only for yourself but so that you may contribute to the common good. By bringing people together from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, we stand stronger.
The second question I ask myself is: What does being an American mean to me?
I believe we live in the greatest country in the world. And I believe this country is great because of the opportunities that exist here and the freedoms we have.
My optimism is based on the progress I have seen in my lifetime. My optimism is based on the potential I see in the people in this room. In fact, you give me the most hope about the future!
Some of you dedicate your careers and lives to supporting and conducting research and teaching, and advancing the goals of this institution. Others of you will stay for a few years, graduate, and then go off and do amazing things with your lives elsewhere. But every one of you, and each of your colleagues and friends here at Stanford, have made a commitment to the importance of education. And so it is your energy, your dedication, your values — you are the source of my greatest optimism.
You must believe in the future and you must work to make the world better. Believe in and work for what is best in people. Be positive about the contributions you are making. Use your education to build the country worthy of your aspirations. Work to ensure that others can receive similar educational opportunities so that together you can build a more just, equitable and peaceful world.
The future of this country is yours. Embrace it!