Senior Convocation Ceremony — a student-led annual tradition that occurs before the commencement weekend — kicked off the graduation festivities for the Class of 2023 on Thursday, May 25. Ken Jeong, the keynote speaker, described his unconventional career trajectory and his advice for postgraduate decision making.
As an actor and comedian, Jeong is known for his role in the comedy “The Hangover” film series and as a panelist in the reality show “The Masked Singer.” After graduating from Duke University, he received his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in 1995, practicing as a licensed physician for the next seven years. He quit the job in 2006 and started his career in acting.
Jeong began his speech with jokes praising Cornell’s curriculum and athletic achievements. He cited the long-lasting Cornell-Harvard hockey rivalry and the popular class Hotel Administration 4300: Introduction to Wines.
“Cornell, in my opinion, has the best curriculum of any Ivy League school. Why? Three words, Intro[duction] to wine,” Jeong said.
Jeong then acknowledged the hardships the graduating class faced as the youngest college class impacted by the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. He recommended that due to the pandemic-related stress people endured over the past years, graduates should take an intentional mental break over the summer. Drawing on his own experience struggling with a work-obsessed mentality, Jeong described that taking breaks is important in prioritizing health.
“There is a stop-and-smell-the-roses factor,” Jeong said. “I think it’s beneficial to you guys [to take a break] because one thing that’s more important than success is your health.”
On March 10, 2020, the University announced the shutdown of campus and the switch to virtual classes for the remaining semester. Being second-semester freshmen then, undergraduates from the Class of 2023 endured a campus shutdown and online college classes.
Jeong noted that experiencing college throughout the pandemic taught students to be adaptable in the face of unprecedented changes.
“You had to adapt in a major way — whether it be lockdown, Zoom classes, hybrid [classes], returning to in-person classes — constantly adapting [to these changes], and now you’re graduating and, dare I say, became the most adaptable class who’s graduated college in recent memory,” Jeong said.
Citing the current Writers Guild of America strike — which caused the halt of major film and television production — Jeong also referred to his current life situation as proof of the importance of adaptability.
“I don’t have a job right now. So what do I do? Be adaptable, embrace the unknown and go with the flow,” Jeong said. “And to anyone hiring in the audience, I just want you to know I’m very available for work, maybe College Avenue at a karaoke bar, AMC or maybe I’ll just go back to school. Who knows, how I’ll just come here and audit that Intro to Wine class next semester.”
Jeong further shared that being adaptable means being fearless, which was one of the core factors that led him to make the career transition into entertainment. For him, going to medical school and becoming a physician was a fear-based decision due to family expectations rather than a decision based on passion. Consequentially, he said he felt miserable while finishing his medical degree and working as a physician. Jeong described that he had found and developed his true passion for comedy and acting during his undergraduate years at Duke University and later in his breakout performance in the film “Knocked Up” as the role of the doctor.
“Once I finished filming ‘Knocked Up,’ I went back to work [as a doctor] the next day, inexplicably, and I was miserable. I was depressed and I was like, okay, maybe this is just my moment, my 15 minutes of fame and I will just live my life out as the guy forever known as a doctor from ‘Knocked Up,’” Jeong said. “That’s amazing, but I wanted more because I knew I was capable of [getting more]. Be fearless.”
According to Jeong, the misery lasted until his wife, Tran Ho, also a licensed physician, stepped in and encouraged him to switch to another career out of passion. In December 2006, he chose to quit his physician job and pursue a career in Hollywood. Today, Jeong has found success in the media industry with roles in shows and films like “Community” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” Jeong cited his career switch as an example of the power of adaptability and courage in response to unexpected life opportunities, which he advised the graduates to embrace regardless of the careers they choose.
“The moment I quit my job, that cloud lifted away,” Jeong said. “I was able to see the light that ultimately led to the hangover and so many things since then and allowed me to do what I love to do for a living.”
Besides Jeong’s keynote speech, Dean of Students Marla Love and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi also spoke to congratulate the graduating class on finishing their Cornell journey.
Rumbidzai Mangwende ’23, Selam Woldai ’23 and members of the 2023 Convocation Committee, including Abegale McDermott ’23, Courtney Davis ’23, Edom Solomon ’23, Richmond Addae ’23 and Yasmin Ballew ’23, also joined the Convocation stage to introduce speakers and shared their reflection of the past four years as graduates.
As a member of the graduating class, Chukwudumebi Obi ’23 appreciated how the ceremony aimed to recognize the class’s hardships and expressed genuine care for the graduates.
“[The speakers] mentioned our compassion and courage are what the world needs, which was not what I expected to hear, because oftentimes with elite spaces [and] universities it is more about how much we can ‘take over’, ‘dominate’, etc. and less about the importance of care,” Obi said.
Greatly resonating with Jeong’s speech, Obi said that despite doubting if they were the right decisions, he had also taken risks and made brave decisions during his Cornell journey. Obi thought these decisions have opened up new opportunities for him, as Jeong has suggested out of his career experiences.
“Don’t be afraid to jump out of a truck naked on Bradley Cooper’s shoulder in ‘The Hangover’ — who knows, it may just give you a career.” Jeong said. “Don’t be afraid of life, and you’ll inspire others. Be bold, take big swings.”