Our Place to Stand, Our Means to Move the World
Commencement Address 2023
By Liz Magill
May 15, 2023
Hello Class of 2023!
This is my first time up here. And I am very proud that my first Penn Commencement is for your Class.
Before we go any further, there is something we are called to do. Today culminates your individual paths at Penn. But on those paths, you did not walk alone. Graduates, would you please rise?
Graduates to my left: Would you please turn and face the nearest stands?
Graduates to my right: Would you please turn and face the nearest stands?
Good. Do you see what I see? I see an army of people who lent their love and support toward your success. Your families and dear ones, your spouses and partners, your friends and mentors. Graduates, all together now, let’s thank them with our longest and loudest applause. Let’s hear it!
Yes, thank you. Wow. Please be seated.
The volume of your cheers; the scope of your army; the community that helped carry you here: They illustrate my message to you today. Success is not solitary. That story of a genius going it alone and changing the world? The genius exists of course. But the solitary nature of her achievements? A myth. Even the once-in-a-generation genius – she had people who nurtured her, who sparked her creativity, who helped her surmount barriers to success. Our ability to do the big things, things great and good, depends on the community around us.
Think about the pandemic and how you persevered. I mean, I know how much you, your parents, and loved ones miss doing everything on Zoom…
But think about it. We had to isolate, yet you made a commitment to connect. To engage in remote coursework with your peers. To check in with loved ones and friends. To sing and play in virtual performances, boosting morale.
Some of you chose to break isolation to care for your patients and clients, placing their health and wellbeing before your own—to the endless admiration of us all.
Throughout it all, that solidarity with others allowed you not only to survive, but to thrive. All for one. One for all. And much of it on Zoom.
There was a secret to your success. Allow me to give you an image. Imagine a very large rock. A rock that stands between you and your diploma. Too wide to skirt, too big to lift, too heavy to roll. Yet moving that rock is exactly what you need to do.
It’s a story as old as humankind. From our earliest days, one of our defining features has been our drive to do things beyond the ability of any one person. So humanity’s earliest tools were things that amplified our strength and reach. Tools like the fulcrum and the lever. If a person has a stick long enough and a fulcrum in the right spot, they can move great weight.
We understand how levers work thanks to the ancient Greek inventor Archimedes. He was the first to discover the mathematical proof for what, in physics, is known as a force multiplier.
Now, let’s get back to your rock. You push and heave and swear. You kick it and bruise your foot. But that rock doesn’t budge.
Ah, but then! You bring to bear your lever—your force multiplier—et voilà! The rock heaves aside. Your path clears. Your diploma, now in reach.
Of the principle Archimedes discovered and the profound implications of force multipliers, he had this to say: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.”
Force multipliers go far beyond our mechanical inventions. I’m talking about the power of our social inventions. Community as force multiplier. Your place to stand and your means to move the world.
This idea encompasses family both blood and chosen. People who, when they heard of your dreams and goals, sacrificed to help you attain them. It is the friend by your side, bouncing ideas, pulling all-nighters, and not pulling their punches when you needed some tough love. It is the mentor, coach, or teacher who, sensing greatness, devoted extra time to elevate your game, hone your skills, or advance your research. It is the multitude who, in numberless ways, amplify your strength and reach.
This is by no means a one-way street. As you benefit, so too do you contribute. You yourself act as a force multiplier, helping to amplify the strength and reach of those around you. Something we should always strive to do.
This kind of community is what places like Penn are all about. We get the word ‘university’ from the Latin universitas, which means ‘the entirety’ or ‘the whole.’ As individuals, we bring our own insights, skills, and goals to the table. Together, however, we can do so much more than any one of us could do alone.
Exhibit A: The fact that we are here now in person. All jokes about Zoom aside, we’re together and not all logging on to a web stream because of the collaboration of two Penn scientists, Drs. Kati Karikó and Drew Weissman. Supported by an extensive, innovative community at Penn and beyond, they created messenger RNA technology. Technology that enables the COVID vaccines that, in turn, make possible today’s celebration.
Exhibit B: Think about what drew you here. Whether an undergraduate, graduate, or professional student: You came here to excel by working with people who are here for the same reason. To do great things and become the best person you can be, in tandem with others. Learning from faculty and peers, partnering in classes, labs, and clubs, collaborating in the arts, athletics, and more. Even when you were just kicking back and having fun, like at the GAPSA Carnival. Or at Hey Day. Spring Fling. Econ Scream. Or countless other moments that comprise your Penn experience.
These truths are baked into your Penn heritage. They connect you directly to one of the most prolific force multipliers of his era, Benjamin Franklin. A French admirer once called Franklin “the Archimedes of his country.” And in the year 1751, he was cooking up another revolutionary idea.
At that point, Franklin’s greatest hits already included unlocking the secrets of lightning, founding the nation’s first public library and its first volunteer fire department, and of course, founding Penn.
Next, he pitched his fellow Philadelphians on another first: A public hospital for the poor, funded by the community. He printed a proposal to help drum up support. It was a rhetorical master class in persuasion. But allow me to paraphrase lightly one of the more striking lines.
Franklin observed, the good we can do separately is small compared with what we can do collectively. One more time: The good we can do separately is small compared with what we can do collectively.
To do great things, like enduring pandemics and ending them. To do good things, like improving the lives of those around us. And to contribute just as we benefit: Graduates, always remember that community is our force multiplier. It is our place to stand and our means to move the world. Throughout your time here, you have shown us the truth of that.
At the start, I asked you to stand. Now, the shoe is on the other foot. I call on everyone else here—families and friends, Trustees and alumni, faculty, staff, and guests, our big Penn community—please stand with me. Stand and show just how proud we are of everything these fine graduates have accomplished. Please join me in recognizing the great Class of 2023.