"Why Penn?"

September 7, 2010 - Convocation Address
by Penn President Amy Gutmann

 My enthusiastic greetings to the great Class of 2014 and to all of the students who have transferred from other institutions! Smart move, transfers! Welcome all to the University of Pennsylvania!

It is my pleasure and honor to address you in front of College Hall, one of Penn’s finest and oldest buildings. Over the past 137 years, generations of students have walked its corridors, learned in its classrooms, and, occasionally, napped in its shadow.

Yes, napped. Despite what you may have heard, students here do sleep. Knitting up the “ravelled sleave of care,” as Shakespeare put it, is just as necessary as hitting up the well-stocked stacks of Van Pelt.

This evening, you officially join those generations. Together, we celebrate more than your admission to the School of Nursing, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Wharton School, or the College of Arts and Sciences. Together, we celebrate your bright beginning as a proud member of the Penn community.

And what a community it is! Bearers of the Red and the Blue are 290,000 strong. For more than a quarter of a millennium, our graduates have applied their knowledge and made lasting contributions to humanity. Put simply, Penn’s dreamers become the world’s doers.

They have developed life-saving medical treatments; they have nursed the sick back to health; they have built businesses from the ground up, and they have transformed communities around the world with the products of their creative imaginations.

They are Rhodes Scholars, Nobel Laureates, educators, and Olympians.

They are actors, authors, artists, and inventors.

Poets, pioneers, and Pulitzer Prize winners.

Quakers have sat on the United States Supreme Court, marched for Civil Rights, and walked weightlessly outside of the International Space Station.

It seems the only thing that a Penn graduate hasn’t done is become President of the United States. But I am sure that more than one of you is equal to the task.

Yet less than a year ago, you were working on your application and wondering whether you would stand out in the most crowded field in Penn’s history -- 26,938 of your peers, to be exact, applied for admission with you.

Staring at a blinking cursor, you asked yourself, “Why Penn?”  You started to answer, deleted the answer, and started over. You took a break. Maybe you bemoaned your plight in a status update. And then you started over again. Why Penn?

Yes, it’s a tough question. And because you answered it for us, I am going to answer it for you.

Why Penn? Because we want you to pursue your passion and combine it with purpose. Your dedication to learning is part of what drew you here, and part of what we found so appealing about you. Now, you have the precious opportunity both to explore broadly and to focus intensely on what matters most to you. 

I love hearing stories of students who combine their passion with a purpose. One of my favorite examples is the Hydros Bottle. Tired of buying water and wasting plastic, two graduates from the Class of 2009 invented a reusable, filtered water bottle. Today, the product is on store shelves, and sales are helping fund the construction of sorely-needed water distribution systems in Cameroon. 

Of course, not all of you know what you want to do and how to make it happen from the moment you set foot on campus. Why Penn? Because you’ve demonstrated great potential, and we’re prepared to help you. Your classes will be challenging. Your professors will demand your best work, and they will be happiest when you succeed. If you have a question, ask it. “A prudent question,” as Francis Bacon said, “is one-half wisdom.”

So: Why Penn? Because, here, you will put knowledge to work for humanity. Don’t wait until after Commencement to pursue independent research and apply what you have learned in the classroom.

Visit our Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships – CURF, as members of the Penn community refer to it. The Center’s staff will help you identify opportunities to do research alongside our world-renowned faculty members.

Get involved in West Philadelphia. Check out Civic House, the Fox Leadership Program, and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

Each year, thousands of Penn students display what our founder Benjamin Franklin considered “true merit” – “an inclination joined with an ability to serve [humankind].” Whether you get involved in our neighborhood, in our nation, or around the world, you uphold the aim of our great University.

Many of the Penn dreamers I mentioned earlier sat where you sit tonight not so long ago. Like you, they filled out applications and waited patiently for news of their acceptance. Unlike you, they couldn’t “friend” anyone until they got to campus. But, once here, they followed their passions. They asked for expert advice when they needed it. And they put their knowledge into practice.

I’ll leave you with one final example: Dr. William Pepper. He received both his undergraduate degree and his medical degree from Penn, and he became a professor at our Medical School in 1874. Seven years later, he was unanimously elected to lead Penn. Over the course of his thirteen-year tenure, he oversaw the addition of four schools, increased the number of faculty more than five-fold, and more than doubled the number of students.

Pretty productive for a guy without internet access!

Dr. Pepper not only transformed Penn into a modern research university, but also was instrumental in founding several other educational institutions in Philadelphia, including the Free Library.

Today, if you visit the Free Library’s main branch on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, you will see a beautiful, bronze memorial to Shakespeare, its black marble base inscribed with two lines from Jaques’ famous monologue in As You Like It

“All the world's a stage / and all the men and women merely players.”

Why Penn? Because, here, new scenery, new cast members, and new plots await you. The role you will play is limited only by your imagination.

You are here because we believe that you are capable of doing great things. All the world’s a stage, and your curtain is rising. Get used to the bright lights, and welcome to the University of Pennsylvania!


Photographs of Convocation 2010 can be found on Dr. Gutmann's Flickr gallery.