May 13, 2007 - Baccalaureate Remarks

Amazing Grace

Graduates of the great Class of 2007, families, friends, deans, members of the faculty, Professor Appiah, and all honored guests: Welcome! A special Mother’s Day salute to the mothers among us!

I can confidently make two promises to you today. First, we will have picture-perfect weather for tomorrow. Second, the extraordinary young men and women who tomorrow will take the field named for Benjamin Franklin are ready to take the world by storm.

But they weren’t always so ready. Graduates, think back with your parents and me to what you were like four years ago when you arrived here as freshmen.  Remember how it felt to leave home as a star high school graduate, only to find yourself surrounded by classmates who seemed so much more accomplished and so much surer of themselves? I remember those days, and the tests that I feared I was going to fail, and the papers I just couldn’t seem to finish until the last minute.

Each of you found the strength to see your way to this day—this glorious day in which we ask you to reflect on the paths you have taken through life while planning the next leg of your journey.

From where did this strength come? It’s something of a mystery, captured for me by the first verse of one of the most beautiful hymns in the world, “Amazing Grace”:

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.”

Now, I did my homework and checked all your application essays only to discover that none of you described yourself as a wretch. But surely all of you would have to agree that, to some degree, you were “blind” when you arrived here, and that your years at Penn have been an eye-opening experience.

You had professors who helped you see the wonders of their fields, and inspired you to make your own contributions.

When Ian Samuels, from Tenafly, New Jersey, came to Penn as a freshman, he could not have foreseen joining Professor Ian McMillan’s Societal Wealth Program and writing software that supports medical clinics in Botswana.

Nor did Terra Gearhart, who came from Albuquerque, New Mexico, see herself tutoring at West Philadelphia’s Lea School for four years while she starred for Penn Dance, mastered Aristotle, and developed such a great a passion for politics that she now aspires to become Governor of New Mexico.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, not only of Penn professors who inspire but also of Penn friends who share with you the joys of Hey Day and Spring Fling, and—even more important—who help you find the strength to get through those rough spots and become friends, perhaps even partners, for life.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that propelled you to strengthen your minds and enlarge your hearts to deliver some small but significant portion of the world from pain, want, or injustice. Knowing and caring enough to double the turn-out in our West Philadelphia voting district and to deliver clean drinking water to a village in Honduras: This too is a kind of amazing grace.

All of which stems from what I think is the greatest gift that a Penn education can bestow upon you: Seeing more clearly the rich complexity and inherent dignity of each human being.

‘Twas a kind of grace that has heightened your awareness of our universal interdependency. Our war-torn and divided world could use some amazing grace right now, and you can be the agents of grace.

Graduates, keep your minds open to the world of ideas and people around you, and your hearts open to amazing grace. See the rich complexity and inherent dignity of all individuals. Exalt in the sound of putting your knowledge into practice. And do Penn, your parents, and yourselves proud in your amazing journeys forward.