Convocation 2016

August 29, 2016

By Amy Gutmann

The Choice is Yours

Members of the Class of 2020: Welcome to Penn!

Those of you who have transferred here from other schools: Home at last! Smart move!

You have chosen to come to Penn from all across this country and every corner of the world.  From New York to California, from Texas to Maine. From all across Pennsylvania and from home here in Philadelphia. From Canada and Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, Egypt and Poland, China, India, and the United Kingdom. 81 countries in all. We are thrilled you are all here.

Tonight, I am delighted to officially induct you into a grand tradition going back more than 275 years. It includes luminaries ranging from Benjamin Franklin to Andrea Mitchell and John Legend; eight signers of the Declaration of Independence; and nine signers of the U.S. Constitution. And now this time-honored tradition includes you.

Choosing to come to Penn was one of the best decisions you will make in your life. OK, I may not be impartial. But I am right. You have chosen well.

Although you arrive at Penn having walked many different paths, you are all here because each of you yourselves chose Penn. But you did not choose alone.

By a show of hands, how many of you learned about Penn from a member of your family or a friend? Put your hands up and keep them up if you learned of Penn from family or friend.

How many of you became interested in Penn because of a teacher or guidance counselor or advisor? Hands up. Good. How many got here because of a coach or mentor?

Take a moment to look around you at how many of you have your hands up.

Coming to Penn was your own choice, but for almost everybody it was a mediated choice. You made it with the aid of others. Thank you, you can put your hands down. (Here you thought the days of raising your hands were over!)

One more quick question: raise your hand if you let someone else make your choice of Penn for you. Ah, not so many this time!

This little exercise goes to show something I hope you will take to heart and hold on to always. As adults, our decisions are our own. We make our own choices. But our choosing well—our choosing wisely—is hardly ever something we do all on our own. It takes a teacher, coach, mentor, a community. It takes an extended family. And that's what you are joining today. That's why your peers and RAs and College House Directors and the Penn faculty and staff colleagues here with me are so important.

Now that you have arrived at the finest urban campus in the world, one great question looms: how will you choose to make the best of it?

We're going to start to answer that question right now.

Please stand up. Go ahead: stretch your legs.

Coming to college is about choosing anew. In that spirit, I want you to choose somebody new who you haven't met before, and say hi. Introduce yourself: shake hands, say hello. Come on now: no exceptions. Not even me! Let's all choose, and choose bravely.

Ok, great! Please have a seat. I see a lot of smiles, and that's good.

This was a hands-on, handshake exercise about the uplifting power of choice. Pardon the pun. We just embraced the fact that the best approach to uncertainty is to buck the familiar. Find your comfort zone and then move beyond it.

How will you make the most of your time at Penn? Choose something new. Choose someone new. The most thrilling choices, the choices that add the most value, come from the unknown. They come when we choose friends and classes, clubs and activities that complement who we are becoming rather than merely reflect who we already know ourselves to be. Differences are the key.

We realize the most out of life when we reach beyond what's familiar to embrace what's new.

Case in point: Right after college, a young man decided to follow his passions and interests, and forgo more lucrative alternatives. He joined a nonprofit, working internationally to bring eye care and inexpensive glasses to people who made less than four dollars a day. He built connections, learned the ins and outs of the manufacturing process, and helped many thousands along the way.

Eventually, he came to Wharton for his MBA. One day, while commiserating over a lost pair of expensive glasses with some Penn friends, they wondered: Why are eye glasses so expensive? From this simple question, a series of further questions arose. Can we be the first to figure out how to cut their cost? Can we provide affordable glasses to people who need them most but can afford them least?

Together they hatched a plan. Because of what Neil Blumenthal had learned during his nonprofit days, he saw they could both create a successful business and have the power to achieve great social good.

That company is Warby Parker. Today, their idea has grown into a successful business that has provided more than a million free pairs of great new glasses to people all around the world.

I chose Neil's bold choices to share with you because I also want to invite you to be among the first to choose to join him and his co-founder of Warby Parker on October 28th here at the grand opening celebration of our Pennovation Center. Come see the future of innovative choices at Penn. Who knows? You may even get your very own free pair of Warby Parker sunglasses there!

The most important developments in our lives arise, like your Penn education and successes like Warby Parker, from a series of individual choices, none of which are solitary.

During your years at Penn, you will have so many opportunities, and you will make so many choices. Take the fullest advantage of Penn faculty, mentors, and friends to guide and assist you, to offer you their counsel, expertise, and support. Never ever hesitate to ask for our help. Challenges come with the territory. Help is always at hand when you need it.

Your choices while at Penn also importantly extend beyond what occurs here on campus. For example, there's a very big choice coming soon for every American citizen on November 8th. I encourage every eligible voter in the Class of 2020 to register and to cast your vote in the upcoming election. For all our international students, I encourage you to participate fully in campus discussions on the issues and enjoy a front row seat for seeing American democracy at work.

These choices and countless more to come are ultimately what joining our Penn community is all about. Your choices matter. Your contributions to our community count. Penn thrives because we boldly self-renew. And as our newest members, your choices will not only transform your lives; they also will help shape the future of this dynamic and caring place called Penn.

Seeing you all here this evening, I have every reason to be confident that you will choose well. We are all so very happy that you are here. Here's to Our Penn!