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Convocation 2014

Class of 2018 Convocation

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Make the Connection

By Amy Gutmann

Members of the Class of 2018: Welcome! Students transferring to Penn from other schools: Brilliant move! And I say this without any bias whatsoever… You come to us from across the country and around the world: From California to Massachusetts; From Texas to New York; And, of course, from the great state of Pennsylvania. You come from India, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and many countries in between. You come from numerous cultures and walks of life. But no matter where you come from, know that you have arrived at the right place. We are thrilled you're here.

Tonight, we formally welcome you to your new home with a tradition called Convocation. "Convocation" is an ancient word. From Latin roots, it means an assemblage of people gathered for a special purpose. We convocate to make weighty decisions. We convocate to plan great ventures. And we convocate to model the hottest runway looks in academic fashion. And I do mean hot—these robes don't exactly breathe… But with your Convocation, you officially join one of the greatest assemblies in history.

You join centuries of Penn luminaries and visionaries; nation builders and Nobel Laureates; you join the likes of Benjamin Franklin and W.E.B. DuBois and six signers of the U.S. Constitution. And the special purpose that you now share with all Penn people—past, present, and future—is engagement. To engage what we know and what we do to create a better world. Engagement for good is our Penn purpose. In the past few days, you've been meeting new people and making new friends—some who will forever change your life. But the most fulfilling engagement you will do during your time at Penn will require you to reach beyond what's familiar to embrace what's new.

And I propose we start right now.

I want everyone to stand up. No, this is not a drill—go ahead and stretch your legs. Now, I want you to look around and greet somebody near you who you haven't met before. Shake hands, give a high-five, a fist bump, or whatever you'd like, and of course, a big smile. Come on now, no exceptions. Engage!

Ok, great! Please have a seat. I see a lot of smiles, and that's good. You just performed the most basic building block of our great calling. And what you're feeling right now is the natural result. Engagement begins quite simply. With a brush of humanity, an extended hand, a shared smile, we feel connection and empathy. We build from that. We learn new things and apply our talents and labors toward improving the lives around us. From there, our efforts spread to our communities, to our nations, and to the world.

Of course, a smile and a handshake are not enough to move the needle on many challenges, both great and small.   To answer the really tough ones, you need broad knowledge and innovative resources. You need collaboration and access to diverse ideas. And that's what you'll find here at Penn. When he laid down the plan for this University, our founder Ben Franklin pictured a special kind of graduate. He knew that the graduates who would make a difference in the world would be those who knew a lot and knew how to put their knowledge to good use. He knew it because he lived it. A prolific inventor and revered statesman, he brought us the first lending library, the first volunteer fire department, the first hospital in the country, and of course, America's first university. So you could say engagement is in Penn's DNA. But when we talk about devoting our knowledge and talents to engagement, we shouldn't overlook an important part of the equation.

When you give of yourself, you get a lot in return. There's good evidence to show that those who engage in significant ways feel greater happiness and contentment. They're more connected to their communities. They have a greater sense of purpose. I discovered this for myself in one of my earliest jobs as a counselor at a sleep-away summer camp for disadvantaged children. Like almost all my campers, Dana's family was on assistance. She seemed unrelentingly sad and eventually told me she felt guilty because her mom worked three housecleaning jobs to support Dana's entire family. After I heard her story, I decided that building Dana's happiness and dispelling her guilt would be my primary goal that summer. Now, dispelling guilt does not come naturally to anyone who—like me—was raised well by a Jewish mother and father… Undeterred, I set out to prove to Dana that if she worked really hard to become camp leader in her age group, her mother would be even more proud. Dana engaged and achieved her goal. After camp ended, her mother wrote to me to say that Dana came home a much happier camper. To this day, I still count that summer with Dana among the most satisfying and edifying times of my life.

My life is infinitely more satisfying to the extent that I've devoted it to helping transform the lives of others. Just as your lives will be immensely more satisfying to the extent that you devote your knowledge and talents toward something larger than yourself. You've arrived at the perfect place to do exactly that. Penn is alive with opportunities to engage. Here, you can boldly embrace new and challenging ideas. Stretch beyond your course of study to draw from other disciplines. Take on original research with the best faculty in the world to answer some of the world's most pressing questions. Be joiners. Join with the Netter Center, Civic House, and Fox Leadership to enrich your education with dynamic service learning.

And keep this in mind: None of us succeeds on our own. Our individual success depends on the contributions of communities. Joining is the first step. Engagement comes next. Mark my words: Your engagement with Penn will be one of the greatest sources of your lifelong success and satisfaction. So I invite you—I encourage you—I challenge you: Proud members of the Class of 2018 and equally proud transfer students! Engage to do good, and together, let's show the world what a world of difference a Penn education can make. This is your time. Penn is your place. Let us begin.