May 17, 2009 - Baccalaureate Address

"Questions from a Caterpillar"

Graduates, family, friends, members of the faculty, Reverend Dr. Jones, and honored guests: Welcome, and congratulations to the great Class of 2009!

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reminds us that “all things must change / to something new, to something strange.” Things have changed. The number of defining moments during your senior year easily tops every other graduating class of my Penn presidency.

In late October, those of us who are Phillies fans celebrated a long awaited World Series Championship. Soon after, on Election Day, we turned out in record numbers for one of the most path-breaking presidential races in history. And, later that night, the many Penn supporters of Barack Obama marched from campus to City Hall to celebrate a momentous victory. Just last month, you not only enjoyed yourselves at Spring Fling, but also launched a brand new Final Toast tradition during Hey Day, which should live on in Penn history.

Of course, this year wasn’t all ticker-tape parades and late-night celebrations. We also anxiously watched the financial system unravel and jobs disappear in a downturn of historical proportions almost as great as the election of the first African-American president.

Like Alice in Wonderland, we felt ourselves tumbling down the rabbit hole, upended and uprooted. Now, we find ourselves in a new – and daunting – world of possibility. A world in dire need of you, our great Penn graduates.

But, how will you know which adventures to pursue? In Wonderland, the caterpillar offers Alice advice by posing three seemingly simple questions. Today, I ask the same three questions of you.

The first – and most fundamental – question: Who are you?

At Penn, you answered this question by seeking out life changing experiences. You became lacrosse and soccer stars, Sphinges and Friars, members of Red and Blue Racing, Alternate Spring Break, Penn Leads the Vote, Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

You searched for yourself, Penn-style, by connecting with others. Your answer to “who am I” changed many times, sometimes in the course of a day, because this question does not lend itself to a single or simple answer. Some of the very best answers emerged as you developed your talents in service to others. You honed your performing arts skills, for example, by entertaining and uplifting your fellow students – and me. You satisfied your yen for civic engagement by turning out the vote in record proportions in West Philadelphia. You grew larger as individuals by developing your many talents and serving others simultaneously.

Which leads to the second question: What size do you want to be?

The economic downturn makes some well-worn paths more difficult to travel down. But, just as surely, it creates opportunities for you to be maximally creative, and explore the unusual and the unknown.

It is just the right time to take your Penn education out for a spin, and to strive for greatness. By teaching for America or continuing your education in a field that truly captures your interest and imagination. By starting a green business and helping to save our imperiled planet. By writing a book, directing a documentary, creating a piece of art, or founding a comedy troupe that moves people. By saving and enhancing lives and engineering more effective ways of addressing some of the world’s toughest problems. The more difficult the challenges that you face head on, early on, in your post-Penn careers, the larger you will grow. And the happier and more successful you will be in your lifetime.

Which brings us to the caterpillar’s third and final question: Are you content now?

My guess is that you are in some sense content, but in no way complacent. Your Class, the great Class of 2009, has given much to Penn, Philadelphia, and the world. You made a lasting impression on Penn and on me. You deserve to be extremely pleased with your achievements.

Yet, I am sure that you also are – in true Penn fashion – restless and eager. Things have changed, far too fast for anyone fully to comprehend. The world is new and strange. It is also exciting and challenging. This is the world that is awaiting you.

Meet it, as you have met one another and me, with open arms. Accept the challenge of knowing yourself, growing large, and as a consequence, even in tough times, gaining the greatest happiness. Penn expects nothing less of you. I am very proud of all you have accomplished and excitedly await your next adventures. Congratulations!