May 17, 2021

When we’re all for one, we all pull through

By Amy Gutmann

Hello Class of 2021! I have never seen a more beautiful sight.

Every Commencement at Penn is historic. But none quite like this.

To each graduate on the Field, and to every graduate joining us online: You have done it. Here, at the turning of the tides, you make history.

Our Seniors, however, have a problem. A technicality, really. I cannot declare you graduates because I didn’t have the chance to declare you Seniors.

Hey, I don’t make the rules. But we can fix this.

You know that red bag beneath your seats? Please open it now and take out what you find.

That’s right! Your Hey Day is long overdue! Would all of you please stand?  First, the customary quiz. You must answer three questions for me to officially declare you Seniors.

Question 1 is a simple yes or no: Was 2020 the longest year ever?

That was easy. Now for Question 2 and be honest: In the era of online everything, jeans or sweatpants?

Ok, interesting. Finally, for number 3, a true or false statement: True or false: Nothing—and I mean nothing—can stop the amazing Class of 2021!

Class of 2021, you aced it! To seal the deal, with me on the count of three, snap off a piece of your hats. One, two, three!

At long last, I now can officially declare you Seniors! Please be seated.

A painful sacrifice endured, a joyous promise fulfilled.

So many things we cherish and love, we put on hold out of the utmost necessity. To save lives. To speed the day when everyone everywhere can move past this pandemic.

Speaking now to all graduates participating remotely: You have sacrificed and you have endured, including at this very moment. I wish so much you were here. But know this: We celebrate as one today. Though we’re apart, we are with you now.

United, it is your collective everyday acts—some as weighty as voting and some as simple as masking up—that brought us to this moment of growing, glowing hope.

Your solidarity with others is key.

I saw it when you and millions marched for Black Lives Matter, speaking and singing out for racial justice now. I saw it when the specter of violence struck our Asian and Asian American friends and family.

When we join together to fight racism, when we shield others from social and viral ills, we make it clear. Each of us gets through this only when all of us are through this.

For a just society, a healthy world, a life of maximum good, we know: When we’re all for one, we all pull through.

In this, you join a proud Penn tradition. A century ago, the Class of 1919 gathered for their Commencement. They sat where you sit. The Influenza Pandemic was still at large and World War I was recently over.

Their yearbook captured the disruption—and the hopeful work that followed. Hear their words.

‘The Class entered the University unconscious of the responsibilities it would assume. It will always be remembered that as the Class advanced, it helped those who followed. As it received, it also gave.’

 You, too, advanced while helping those who follow. As you received, you also gave. When we evacuated campus last spring, Penn students immediately sought to make a difference.

You organized a national campaign, sending heartfelt thank you’s to nurses and doctors fighting COVID. Lockdown Letters was born.

More than 25,000 health care workers have received your letters. Boosting morale. Making a difference. An everyday act, exponentially stronger through solidarity.

“We didn’t have the money,” said one Lockdown co-founder. “But the idea was really clear. We could still do something meaningful.”

Doing something meaningful. That’s core to Penn’s ethos, embodied by our students, exemplified by our people. Our work is the work of lifting all others. And that includes the vaccines now defeating the pandemic.

It was Penn Medicine’s Drew Weissman, Kati Karikó, and their team who pioneered mRNA technology. Their breakthroughs make the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines possible.

A few months ago, Drew and Kati gathered to receive their own doses. A reporter asked what was going through Drew’s head.

His answer was simple. “I always wanted to develop something that helps people.”

Helping people was also top of mind when I chaired President Obama’s Bioethics Commission. Among the renowned leaders in public health who testified before the Commission was Dr. Tony Fauci. Maybe you’ve heard of him? 

We were addressing the U.S. and global response to the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I asked Tony, “When the fear of helping others outweighs the need to help others, what do we lose?”

He replied, “The best way to protect Americans is by going over to help.”

On COVID, the message remains undeniably powerful. “A global pandemic requires a global response.” We all benefit by strengthening public health worldwide.

It is our united action with and for others that unlocks the common good. Solidarity, our salvation.

In Tony’s testimony, in the Commission’s work, in all that you and we have done as one University and one community, this truth resounds: When we’re all for one, we all pull through.

Learning online, masking up, remotely singing with Counterparts or playing with the Penn Band, marching for justice, missing milestones so that others may enjoy more life: Never forget and always be proud that it wasn’t the mighty that brought us to this moment.

We’re at the threshold of a bright future thanks to your everyday acts in solidarity with and for others. I could not be more proud.

So momentous is this turning point that I find myself seeking a special theme for the occasion. And I think I’ve found one.

Here, with the incomparable Class of 2021, we celebrate the next bright chapter. Starting right now….

Today dawns A New Penn Hope! Among our honorary degree recipients is John Williams. He knows all about the moments—and musical scores—that define a generation. It’s fitting that we play his most famous work, the score from Star Wars. It celebrates everyday heroes who overcome great perils. Which is what I want us to do right now.

Together, let us celebrate all of our heroes at home. I want you to stand, stand with me now.

Let’s give our longest and loudest applause for our parents, grandparents, families, and friends. For our fellow graduates, faculty, and staff. For the health care workers and so many others who have given their all in the fight against COVID. Let’s hear it for our heroes!

Thank you all and congratulations!