Convocation Address Class of 2015

September 6, 2011
by Penn President Amy Gutmann

My warmest welcome to the gifted women and men of the Class of 2015! Equally warm greetings to our transfers from other colleges and universities. Transfers? Smart move!

Of course, I'm not surprised that all of you made the smart move of coming to Penn. You're the most talented and diverse group of students we've ever enrolled… and that's certainly saying something. I'll soon see if you are also the most spirited!

Students of the College of Arts and Sciences… Nursing students… Engineering students… Whartonites - at this Convocation all of you together officially join this great University community. Today, you begin your journey at Penn. As on any journey, you're going to be in need of a way to navigate. And your GPS systems aren't going to help.

So, I want to share with you some advice on navigating your Penn journey - especially if you want not only to graduate and get a job, but also to live a great life that reflects your tremendous potential. My advice is to make the most of the stars in front of you… the stars around you… and the stars within you.

Now, I realize there's some danger in advising you as I am about to do. I'm a Socratic teacher at heart, and I remember an answer that a student gave to an essay question on Socrates, who as you know spent considerable time questioning the youth of Athens. The student wrote that "Socrates was a famous teacher who went about trying to give people advice… They poisoned him." For giving you advice on this occasion, I trust you'll forgive me… or at least not poison me.

Let's begin with the stars in front of you. They are the tradition - and the spirit - of Penn which all of you today inherit as members of this community. First and foremost, these Penn stars are our spirit of inquiry and inquisitiveness - of creativity and innovation. All made sweeter by Penn's audacious and irrepressible community spirit. Holding Convocation here in the Palestra, filled with years of Penn's winning spirit, makes for a fitting start.

I recently told Philly Magazine that my favorite spot in our city is the Palestra on game night. Now I may have to change that answer to the Palestra at the Class of 2015 Convocation!

The quest for meaningful knowledge and understanding lies at the heart of our University. But this quest means more than learning the right answers - or even asking the right questions.

It means doing the work that allows you to come to know yourselves… and what gives your life the most profound meaning, and joyful satisfaction.

As you follow these stars in front of you, also here to guide you are the stars that surround you - your fellow students and the faculty of Penn. You make your journey alongside an amazing group of classmates. You will challenge each other to broaden your horizons… to think in new ways… and to see controversial issues from different perspectives (including on such fundamental matters as which food truck offers the best fare).

The stars around you, of course, include Penn's fabulous faculty. They will test you. They will inspire you. They will allow you to undertake unique interdisciplinary work. And they will urge you to achieve more than you ever thought possible.

I am proud to be a member of Penn's faculty and also proud that we ask far more of you than one of our sister colleges did in the 19th Century. It required all its applicants to be able to do three things: "Recite the multiplication tables, lay a fire - and mash potatoes." We of course expect more of you than mashed potatoes, but seriously speaking, and above all, Penn faculty will stretch your creative imaginations.

The third stars to guide you are the major stars of Penn's universe, those within you: Your dreams and your passions. Your talents and your capabilities. Your ambitions and, yes, your anxieties. The stars of our own destiny, as Schiller wrote, "are found within us." Advance confidently in the direction of your dreams, as Thoreau wrote, and "You will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

I trust that you will use the stars within you not only for your own development - but also for the development of our Penn, our West Philadelphia, and our global community.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin described his own life's journey from Boston to Philadelphia, to allow the reader to "compare such unlikely beginnings, with the figure I have since made…" Franklin arrived in Philadelphia with little more than three loaves of bread under his arms. Our founder, the sage of the American revolution - patriot, printer, and philosopher… statesman and scientist… inventor and innovator - Franklin would go on to live one of the most amazing lives of any American.

Today, you begin your own journeys with destinations that - like those of the young Franklin - are yet unknown. My advice to you is deceptively simple: Guide yourselves by the stars in front of you... the stars around you… and above all, the stars inside you.

And as you take those first - perhaps anxious - steps on your journeys, please remember that we're here not just to challenge you, but also and most significantly to support you.

One day, each of you will look back on your unique journey here. You will find it to be totally different from Franklin's in where it takes you - but similarly amazing in what you have learned, who you have befriended, what you have created and contributed… and above all in the person you will have become.

If you had asked me what I thought my own destination would be when I was beginning my college journey, I would have said teaching math. But here I am with you at Penn. Truth be told, I'm even more excited about the journey you're about to begin than I was about my own college journey, because on top of how much you'll create, contribute, and grow as a person…, it's also just so much fun to be at Penn!

So to you, the members of the Class of 2015, I say, welcome to the Penn family… Follow the stars, and enjoy the journey!