May 18, 2008 - Baccalaureate Remarks

Pursuing Ideas Across All Boundaries

Graduates, family, friends, members of the faculty, Sister Mary, and honored guests: Welcome, and congratulations to the great Class of 2008!

Graduates, you and I share a special bond: We arrived at Penn together. When we met at Convocation four years ago, we were “strangers in a Penn land.” Today, we are far from strangers. By living and learning together during these four years at Penn, we have become a family

In one of the most famous first lines of a great novel, Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy did not have Penn in his sights, because Penn’s family is unlike any other. We are happy in the most unusual ways:

We have a passion for learning unmatched by any other family. And we are most jubilant when we are turning despair into hope and revolutionary ideas into practical pursuits for the benefit of others.

You certainly shined during some of our nation’s darkest hours. After Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, you and our Penn family responded with helping hands, opening our doors and your dorm-rooms to displaced college students. You ran blood drives and clothing drives. You organized groups of volunteers to take part in the cleanup.

As weeks dragged into months and months into years, the Gulf Coast fell off the national radar. But our passionate devotion to our brothers and sisters in the Gulf never subsided. We set our hearts and minds to the daunting task of recovery. We brought together the best thinking on disaster response. We held conferences and published new books. We sent teams of faculty, students, and staff from across the University to work on initiatives in housing, redevelopment, public policy, and health care. 

Two and a half years later, the Penn family is more involved than ever in helping Gulf Coast communities get back on their feet. 

Many members of this class from all four schools have played important roles in our work. College students have cleaned up and rebuilt homes in New Orleans.

Engineering students have provided technology support in Pearlington, Mississippi, where Nursing students have conducted health screenings. And Wharton students have consulted to local businesses on rebuilding in the towns of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

Your stories remind us that our Penn family derives our greatest joy and fortune by drawing on each other’s energies and strengths and deepening our connections to the world.

Befitting our happy and caring Penn family, we also cheer when one of our own translates a revolutionary idea into an invention that puts the human race on stronger footing – as senior Chrysta Irolla has done … quite literally

Seeing below-the-knee amputees in China suffering from pressure sores moved Chrysta to expand her horizons beyond understanding the science of prosthetics. She designed a “smart sock,” a sensory device that would protect the skin and allow amputees to walk free of pain.

With support from Weiss Tech House, Chrysta built a prototype of her Proteza Smart Sock, which last month won the Grand Prize at the Annual PennVention competition.

I expect Chrysta to revolutionize the science of prosthetics in the years ahead. I also have come to expect inventiveness from every member of this inspiring class. I have watched you grow into extraordinary young writers, speakers, artists, healers, explorers, entrepreneurs, and — yes— great entertainers. 

Tomorrow when we walk together to Franklin Field, know that you will not be breaking away from Penn. Know that you will be adding new branches to our family tree. Know that you will stay connected to your extended family at Penn. Know that you will continue pursuing ideas across all boundaries and innovations that change the world.

Know that we all are, and will continue to be, so very proud of you as the newest members of our most unusual and extraordinarily happy Penn family. Congratulations