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Commencement Address 2015

May 18, 2015

Crossing Borders, Leaping Boundaries

By Amy Gutmann

Welcome, everyone, to the 259th Commencement of the University of Pennsylvania!

Chairman Cohen, Trustees, Ambassador Power, honored guests, alumni, families, and friends: I give you the great Class of 2015!

The University of Pennsylvania is a community where everything is nearby and where everyone interacts. Graduates, you have spent your time here within a few minutes walk of everything important: your classmates, your professors, Penn’s libraries and laboratories… the Greek Lady. Your life at Penn has been shaped by proximity.

Living as I do, on campus in the President’s house, surrounded by so many of you, I know just how energizing proximity can be. Michael and I have even found ourselves loudly energized by your proximity… at three or four in the morning!

Your Penn experience also reveals a profound insight: diverse individuals interacting in close contact strike sparks of creativity. New ideas arise in each of us from unexpected connections. When diverse people live and work closely together, societies also make unexpected leaps to new discoveries.

But what differentiates energizing proximity from stifling overcrowding? Why does one grouping give us the Harlem Renaissance or Tin Pan Alley, while another only sterile monotony or urban despair? The difference often stems from our welcoming exposure to the world.

Those who see only ‘my street, my family, my tribe’ may only see a future that looks exactly like their past. Creativity booms when people joyfully expose themselves to a larger world.

Exposure—I have observed—is a funny thing: you can die from it; you can be arrested for it; or it can enrich your life immeasurably.

Your experience at Penn has been this joyful, yet challenging, kind of exposure, enriching your lives through a global perspective. Your campus home has been a map of the world in miniature. No fewer than ninety countries are represented among the members of the Class of 2015.  You transcend oceans and mountains. You cross borders built by geography and society. You leap boundaries made by history, ideology, and faith.

When I talk about bringing the world to Penn and Penn to the world, I’m describing something infinitely more profound than time zone differences and jet plane travel. I’m imagining the future. And I’m talking about you.    

[Penn Global Student Video Plays]

Yes, this may be the only Commencement speech ever to include the theme song from Game of Thrones. The contrast is most fitting…

After all, our Commencement speaker will be talking about what she’s seen working at the United Nations. One is a tale of the titanic struggle of wills and a world perpetually at the edge of catastrophe. The other is a story about Westeros.

Truly, it is no coincidence that Game of Thrones has become a runaway hit. Despite the magic and giants, the white walkers and dragons, we all can identify something real in Westeros. It’s the story of a world defined by tribal politics; a world governed through naked power, driven by violent history and ancestral hatred. I cannot help but see in it a world that is uncomfortably close to parts of our own. Its central image is a throne of swords; its central location a 700-foot-tall wall of ice that tries— but fails —to keep the other removed. When you rule on an iron throne, walls and barriers are essential to survival.

By contrast, the time you have spent at Penn has made you adept at crossing borders and leaping boundaries. But iron thrones and walls of ice persist in our world. For as many border crossings as we celebrate, there are many more who seek to close them down.

They seek to rid themselves of those they consider alien, and they insist on focusing inward: my street, my family, my tribe .

You are the antidote. Because you have embraced the world at Penn, you stand ready to move the world beyond hostility and hatred. And a good thing too. Your global perspective is what our world needs to confront its many challenges. As border crossers, many of you are already setting out to deliver clean water and affordable health care to underserved communities – and thank you for that.  You setting out to provide universal education and leadership opportunities for girls and boys alike – thank you for that. You are organizing broad coalitions in defense of immigration reform so that our national borders are not barriers to economic and social justice—and yes, thank you for that as well. And that’s just the start.

By exposing yourself to a world of differences, you will continue to make great innovative leaps.

My own life began with a leap, though I was not around to witness it. It is the year 1934, in Nazi Germany, and one young man chooses to flee the only home he and his family had ever known. That young man was my father.

He traveled to India; he started a business; he began life anew.  He might have remained in India for the rest of his days, but after fourteen years, he took another leap. This time, to the United States for a cross-country trip, where he met a young woman from New York City. A wedding, a newly wed jaunt together to India and back, and the outcome stands before you today. When I talk to you of the life-enhancing consequences of leaping boundaries and crossing borders and a global perspective, I know whereof I speak.

In 2006, I went back to where my story began, to India. I wanted to visit the house where my father lived so many years ago.

I was welcomed in by a prominent Indian doctor living there now with his family, and he shared stories with me from when he was just a child. Some of his stories were about a man from Germany.

‘I remember your father,’ the doctor told me as I sat on the couch with his wife and children. ‘He was a very nice man and very good at business. But he spoke Hindi with a foreign accent. So, naturally, I thought he was secretly a spy.’

Truth in point: When we live globally, we must expect the unexpected.

Today each of you crosses a very special border -- between your years as a student and your worldly achievements yet to come. The unexpected awaits you. And no one can tell you exactly what will come.

But I can tell you this: We here today are sure of your abilities, confident of your opportunities, and very proud of the good you now go forth to do, crossing borders and leaping boundaries!

So I ask everybody—from all corners of the globe, and across all borders—to stand together with me now. Moms and dads, spouses and partners, grandmas and grandpas, sisters and brothers, family and friends, our honored guests, trustees and faculty, please stand and show our 2015 Penn Graduates just how proud we are.

Thank you.