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Convocation 2019

August 26, 2019

By Amy Gutmann

Expand Your Orbit

Members of the Class of 2023: You have arrived!  

Transfer Students: You made the right call!  

You come from all 50 states, Washington D.C., and 79 countries around the globe. The sheer diversity you represent is nearly impossible to capture in words.

But this is Penn, so we will try.   

Together, on the count of three, I want you to shout out your home state or country. Ready? One, two, three!  

I don’t think I heard everyone. Let’s try it one more time. One, two, three!   Good!

Welcome, all, to the Penn family! Congratulations on the journey you made to arrive right here!

For most of you, the journey began in 2001, the year you were born. People say it was the year that changed everything. I say you are the Class that can transform anything.

In coming to Penn, you’ve arrived at the very best place in the world to deploy your creativity to maximum effect.

Consider this the official launch date for the next stage in your journey. Let’s call it 2001: A Penn Odyssey.

And trust me when I tell you: It’s going to be out of this world.

To maximize your Penn odyssey, I challenge you every day to:

Expand your orbit.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that put the first person on the Moon. Neil Armstrong stepped out on the lunar landscape and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It’s a line we know by heart. Here’s something we can all take to heart: Penn alumni helped put the first person on the Moon. Penn graduates helped run the Kennedy Space Center and engineer the rocket technology that powered the Apollo program.

The Moon landing was a defining achievement in my lifetime. In your lifetime, it may very well be Mars.

And Penn people will make that possible as well.

People such as Elon Musk, the Penn alum whose SpaceX program is transforming how we journey to the stars. Penn faculty are investigating how the human body can better cope with space travel. And Penn undergraduates just like you intern at NASA every year. Our Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships – which we call CURF – can connect you with many such opportunities.

But space exploration is just one possibility. Expanding your orbit at Penn involves any field and every endeavor.

Who here is a movie fan?   I’m a huge movie buff myself, and I wonder: Who this summer saw Avengers: Endgame?   

I guessed you might have – after all, it is the highest grossing film of all time. What you might not know is that both Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame were co-directed by none other than a Penn grad.

That’s right: Anthony Russo graduated from the College (in 1992) with a degree in English.

It just goes to show you: To do something out of this world at Penn, you don’t have to major in physics.  

Expanding your orbit goes well beyond your major. It means growing your understanding of community service, citizenship, and your – and our – wellbeing.

To help you do this, I encourage you to pursue an exciting new certificate program that we’ll launch this spring called Paideia. It means educating the whole person. The idea comes from our ancient past, but Penn’s Paideia is updated and innovated for modern times – like a form of time travel. I think of it as Benjamin Franklin meets Back to the Future.  

In every part of your Penn education, from coursework to citizenship, the secret to your success is to expand your orbit.

And since there’s no time like the present, I propose we start right now.

Please stand up. Go ahead, stretch your legs.

The very first step in expanding your orbit is reaching out to somebody new. So look around and choose somebody you haven’t met before. When I give the word, go say hi. Shake hands and share a quick fact about yourself.

Ok everyone, go for it!   Come on now, no exceptions. Not even me!  

Ok, great! Please have a seat.   I see plenty of smiles, so I declare your first launch a success!  

Today, you officially join a Penn line of explorers stretching back nearly three centuries.

Benjamin Franklin; eight signers of the Declaration of Independence; nine signers of the U.S. Constitution; and nearly 320,000 Penn alumni currently living around the world: It’s the most passionately engaged network of leaders and innovators anywhere.

They have expanded their orbits through Penn. The results are often transformational. This I know not just as Penn’s president but also as an explorer myself.

Not long ago, I asked Jonathan Moreno, who is one of our Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professors, to partner with me on a new book about health care and bioethics.

The book is intended to help all of us better navigate the most important medical issues of our time. It’s called Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven But Nobody Wants to Die.

Now, Professor Moreno and I had worked together on President Obama’s bioethics commission, but we have diverse backgrounds. I’m a political scientist, and he’s an expert in the history of medicine and health policy. I thought that by expanding our orbits together, the book would be even better than if we had flown solo.

Luckily for me, Professor Moreno agreed.   

Writing a book is super exciting, but it’s also hard work and long hours. I won’t go into detail about our many months of collaboration, except to offer you this: Insomnia Cookies makes home deliveries til 3 AM every night!   This may be the tastiest piece of information in your entire orientation. You heard it here first!  

The outcome of our teamwork is far more than a book. It is a case study for what we at Penn do every day, and it’s what makes Penn such a powerful force in all our lives and for new knowledge, global understanding, and good in the world.

Together, we forge long-lasting relationships; we reach across diverse perspectives and disciplines; and we build a beloved community.

As you embark on your Penn odyssey, you join a University where we all take to heart our commitment to helping each and every one of you work together, discover together, and celebrate together.

Most of all, every day, in countless ways, we will expand our orbits – together.

It’s going to be a blast!

Welcome to Penn!