May 16, 2010 - Baccalaureate Address

"Fill our skies with your stars"

Parents, families, friends, and colleagues, welcome. And congratulations to the great Class of 2010.

Graduates, you have struck me as an unusually passionate class. So let’s reflect on a short reading that speaks to the significance of that special quality--passion--that you have manifested at Penn.

In J. D. Salinger’s novella’s “Seymour: An Introduction,” Seymour Glass offers this insight and advice on his younger brother Buddy’s writing.

“When was writing ever your profession? [Seymour says to Buddy] It’s never been anything but your religion. … Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die?  You’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. … You simply … sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. (Then) you just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.  … Oh, dare to do it.”

Graduates: Think back to the project that gave you the greatest sense of achievement and fulfillment. Did you pour your heart and soul into it --- with no guarantee of success? Were all of your stars out? Not your professor’s stars, not your coach’s stars, not Vincent Van Gogh’s stars ... but YOUR stars?

This year’s Senior Fine Arts Thesis Show gave me a window into the bold character of your graduating class. The stars of our senior artists were out in bunches. The exhibit was provocative; it also revealed the artists’ avid pursuit of insights into the human condition. I was witnessing not the end of a thrilling chapter in these student-artists’ lives, but rather, “the beginning of a life-long search for answers to questions and problems to investigate.”

I have observed in all of you this inspiring capacity for the ecstatic pursuit of life-changing insights and experiences in all. I have seen all of your stars out on Franklin Field and at the Palestra; in my seminars with our Civic Scholars, Fox Leadership, Netter Center, and Bioethics Center students; at Weiss Tech House, Kelly Writers House, and Platt Performing Arts House; in our science and engineering labs; at our University-assisted schools in West Philadelphia; and in probing conversations at the President’s House.

The question now is: Through the inevitable rough patches that lie ahead, can you sustain your passions and continue the voyages of ecstatic exploration and discovery you have begun at Penn?

You know my answer: Yes! Of course, you can. But HOW?

Two words of advice.

First word: REMEMBER. Remember your most rewarding and rapturous experiences at Penn. Remember why you persisted in your passionate pursuit – despite setbacks and sometimes because of failure. Remember that if you could make it here, then you can make it ANYWHERE.

Second word: CONNECT. You are not leaving Penn. You are graduating Penn and joining an extended Penn family of 300,000 alumni, parents, and friends. Among your immediate Penn family are classmates and faculty who kept you going when you were tempted to retreat, and who will always be there for you, with great affection, respect, and, yes, even a measure of awe.

I could give you innumerable reasons to stay connected to your Penn family--the endless intellectual excitement and enrichment, the awesome beauty of our campus, our edgy and engaging arts and culture scene, gratitude, and the Greek Lady. But two reasons resound above all: Remembering your most amazing moments at Penn; and connecting with your Penn friends and colleagues.

Remembering and connecting will continually elevate your spirits by reminding you of the trails YOU blazed for yourself and the fulfilling projects YOU pursued that also lent others a helping hand, all with the support of Penn friends.

“There is no passion to be found in playing small,” Nelson Mandela observes, “[there is no passion to be found] in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” So I say to you, the most passionate class I will soon have the privilege to graduate from Penn: Remember how you made the most out of your Penn experience. Stay connected, above all to your Penn friends and extended family. If you do, I know that you will fill our skies with your stars. And we shall be mighty proud. Let’s hear it for the PASSIONATELY GREAT CLASS of 2010! Godspeed.