Convocation 2017

August 28, 2017

By Amy Gutmann

What Penn Stands For

Members of the Class of 2021: Welcome to Penn!

Transfer Students: Great call!

You come from all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico. From across Pennsylvania and here in Philadelphia. From New York to California. And from Maine to Florida and to Texas, where everyone in the path of Hurricane Harvey is in our thoughts and prayers.

You come from 69 other countries around the world. From Canada and Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, Egypt and Poland, China, India, and the United Kingdom.

Dean Furda told me we had also expected two students from Westeros, but they had to cancel at the last minute. Something about problems in the North.

But I am thrilled all of you are here! And ‘here’ is a very special place. By great tradition, we inaugurate your journey here on College Green and Locust Walk.

When you walk through this heart of our campus, you see our LOVE statue, which symbolizes what we stand for. We stand for Love, not Hate; Inclusion, not Exclusion; Compassion, not Contempt; Empathy, not Antipathy; Understanding, not Ignorance, and the Elevation, not the Degradation, of the Human Mind and Spirit.

We also stand for ideas freely expressed, so long as they are peacefully expressed.

Inclusion and the free exchange of ideas are foundational to innovative teaching and research, and also to democracy.

Before this became Locust Walk and the setting for our LOVE statue, it was once a city street. The cars are long gone now, but Locust Walk remains a vital thoroughfare for a different sort of traffic.

It is a superhighway for ideas, many of which will be unfamiliar to you. They will be creative, uplifting, and challenging.

You will have to overcome the discomfort of stepping out into new territory. Map makers of old feared it. They labeled it terra incognita – the land unknown.

That was back when people viewed the world as flat, and I’m not talking flatscreens like the ones throughout our new Hill House. Can I get a shout out from all the Hill House residents!

Terra incognita takes on a different meaning at Penn – here, we’re talking minds, not maps. When introduced to strange new ideas, human beings tend to become fearful. We draw dragons at the edge of what is known. That’s because new ideas force us from our comfort zones, to discover more.

You join a community dedicated to the energizing possibility of more: More discovery. More innovation. And yes, more coffee – always of great importance to university work!

Properly caffeinated—oh, I meant properly motivated—you will energetically shake off what you think you know. You will discover truths about yourself and the wider world that you could not have imagined before. And you’ll be in excellent company.

A few years ago, we established two unique student prizes, unparalleled in higher education. These prizes award graduating seniors the opportunity of a lifetime to bring their original society-improving ideas to life.

They are called the President’s Engagement Prize and the President’s Innovation Prize.

As I reviewed one team’s proposal from last year, I was moved to tears of joy. Their project is called Lanzando Líderes, or Launching Leaders, and it partners with local Latinx immigrant communities, removing roadblocks to success especially for young bi-lingual and bi-cultural students.

Members of this team were the first in their families to graduate college. 1 out of 8 of your class also will be, like them, their mentor Dean Toni Villarruel and me, a first-generation college graduate. Can I get a big hand for our first-gen students here today?  

The founders of Launching Leaders call their mission pursuing el camino, the pathway. It is just one example of many amazing Penn-propelled projects that venture into uncharted territory. They all build on independent research and interdisciplinary studies that you too are about to pursue. Penn students explore unknown territory to enrich their knowledge– and improve our world.

Some recent news out of Penn perfectly illustrates the power of new ideas. Just weeks ago, a new medical era dawned.

An expert panel unanimously approved what soon will be the first ever FDA approval of a gene therapy treatment for cancer.

When Penn faculty first proposed that our own immune systems might be directed to destroy cancer cells, they were met with skepticism. But Penn pioneers in immunotherapy persisted and we supported their work. Turns out, as the world now knows, they were right.

Employing Carl June’s path-breaking research, great doctors and nurses at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and our Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania have saved many lives, including that of Emily Whitehead. Let me quickly tell you Emily’s story.

When most of you were in middle-school, about 6 years ago, Emily was 6 years old and had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

As her parents knew, she was days away from dying. Thanks to this revolutionary new treatment, Emily is now a vibrant, cancer-free 12-year-old middle-schooler like you were back then.

Saving Emily’s life was a highly collaborative effort, which began by ensuring that a new and then unpopular idea got a fair shot at being considered. That’s how discoveries are made, innovations are born, and sometimes lives are saved.

As with all things worth doing in life, there’s a secret to discovering and innovating well. I will share it with you now. To make the absolute most of your time at Penn, you must make it your business to engage with the spectacularly diverse community around you.

Engaging with the richness of perspective and experience that surrounds you is key to making great leaps of discovery and innovation. And it begins quite simply.

First, we’ve got to turn off Netflix. (Yes, I know, I’m a binge watcher, too!)

Actually, we start with the touch of humanity – an extended hand, a shared smile. We feel connection, empathy, and we begin to understand the experiences and outlooks of others. We learn new things, together. From there, our efforts can spread to our communities, countries, and world.

Now, I realize that may be a lot to ask during your first week on campus when finding all your classes is a challenge. But we can certainly get started, and I propose we do so right now. In a moment, I want everybody to stand, look around and find somebody you haven’t met yet.

Say hi, introduce yourself, say where you’re from, then take out your phones and lean in for a selfie. No exceptions, not even me! Okay, stand up and go for it!

Yes, welcome to Penn, the only Ivy League university with built-in mandatory selfie breaks!

You now have the perfect memento of the energy that comes from stepping into the unknown. Connect and swap your photos on Instagram and Facebook. If you meet again and build on this first experience, email me and share your stories. I’d love to hear about how you connected.

Class of 2021 and transfer students: The more you actively engage with diverse ideas, the more life-changing your experience here will be.

It will also be challenging. Remember, we are here to help you succeed both intellectually and as whole people. We are absolutely committed to helping you succeed.

So, venture boldly into the unknown. Engage with the widest range of ideas and individuals. Never hesitate to ask for help.

And from one binge watcher to another, go ahead and squeeze in some time for whatever helps you relax. I plan on getting caught up on Stranger Things before the next season! (Master of None; not to mention Game of Thrones)

Have fun, and welcome to Penn!