September 4, 2012

By Amy Gutmann

Ready, Set, Engage!

Members of the great Class of 2016: welcome to Penn! To transfers: Smart move! To all of you, welcome to the Palestra, from the Latin word meaning 'lousy weather.' Clearly your spirits are undampened. And so I say this -- and it may sound strange, but it's true -- welcome home!

That's probably the last word---home---that you expect to associate with your brand new habitat here on Penn's campus. As a young adult about your age, Moses fled from his life of luxury in the court of Pharaoh. He took up the simple occupation of goatherd in the Sinai Peninsula. Later, he said of the experience, I was a stranger in a strange land. This is a sensation you too may be feeling now or in the days to come. But I can tell you this: You may feel like strangers in this strange land here at Penn, but only for a short time. Sooner than you imagine, you will feel at home.

And what a home--unlike any other--is this place we proudly call Penn. Let me offer you a few thoughts that can be of some use as you set out to make Penn your home. I cannot tell you with any certainty where you will end up in later years. But I can tell you that Penn alumni are more accomplished than most, more successful than most, and yes, more satisfied than most with how well prepared they were for life.

I also can tell you that most Penn alums have engaged with people, places, and careers that they never expected when they sat where you are sitting tonight. It is not merely a good thing, not being able to predict what you'll end up doing or where you'll end up being or who you'll end up knowing, loving, and living with. It's a great thing. It's perhaps the greatest thing about what a Penn education affords you: endless opportunity.

Our successful alums impart this wisdom from their experiences: stop worrying about where you'll end up. Too many people get too preoccupied with their destination too early in life. It's actually the journey of life that is most exciting and important. So it's the journey I want to talk to you about now.

In light of the summer Olympics, I have three words for you to consider that will be easy to remember. Three easy words that define your journey to a gold medal Penn experience: Ready, set, engage!

Ready defines your state of being. Ready is how you got here. All of us at some point in our lives experience a little bit of imposter's syndrome. That's when you look around at the people you're with, and you observe how talented and capable they are and you say to yourself: "What am I doing here?' So listen up: you're here because you're ready.

Our Admission Dean and his team are the best in the business, and they chose you as a member of the great Class of 2016. Yes--you make up the strongest class in Penn's history. You are by any measure the most diverse, accomplished and interesting group of students ever to matriculate at Penn.  I know you are ready to succeed here. Trust me on that.

Now there is the matter of getting set. Getting set is a critically important part of any race. It's the few moments before the start when the runner gets in position, surveys the landscape, and mentally forms an image of the best route to victory.  But—Olympics aside--I'm not suggesting that you think of your Penn career as a 100 meter dash with a gold / silver / bronze medal awaiting only three of you at the end.

Your time at Penn is not a dash to the finish line; it's a journey of intense exploration. Think of it as a wondrous voyage of mind and spirit, and your classmates become not competitors, but friends and colleagues in a truly grand adventure. It's not a competitive game—like chess or poker--where you win and others lose. It's an exploration where we all need one another and help one another along the way.

Your Penn professors delight in awakening you to the excitement of their subject matter. You will find that what you teach your classmates—whether on the playing field, on stage or in those all-important late night bull sessions--will be every bit as important as what occurs in the classroom. It is through this process that you get set for later life. You form bonds--of love and lifelong friendships. You do service learning. You get out the vote. You dance, you sing, and you spring fling together. Higher learning at heart is open-to-the-world learning. So get set to experience the greatest joys of exploration in tandem with the perspectives of your peers.

The last word of my trilogy--engage--actually is a funny word, and a young one too, historically speaking, being less than 500 years old. Engage only entered our language at the dawning of the English Renaissance, around 1525. When English society started looking outward--when explorers began charting the northern oceans, revealing distant continents, and discovering new peoples and places--a new word was called for. They needed to engage with that which was strange and unfamiliar.

This is precisely what our strategic plan, the Penn Compact, and what your years at Penn are all about. Avid, intense, intellectual engagement will be your greatest challenge, your greatest opportunity--and ultimately, I predict, your greatest joy. Engagement is a word that applies in both matrimony and warfare. We become engaged to our life partners. We also engage the enemy. It's a sense of grappling, of throwing all your efforts, heart and soul into the fray.

Engage while you are at Penn. Engage your professors, engage with new thoughts and challenging ideas, engage your fellow classmates. I also ask you to engage beyond our campus boundaries, which are proudly open to our community. Penn is a national leader in learning through civic engagement. Our course catalog has more than 60 academically based community service (or ABCS) courses offered in 20 departments through six of Penn's schools. This University proudly embraces the calling of civic engagement. I urge all of you to join your classmates in Penn Leads the Vote, which will help you register, find a polling place on campus, and cast your vote.

Class of 2016 and transfers: I know you are ready. Soon you will be set. It's up to you to engage. Do this and unlike Moses, you will not feel a stranger in a strange land for long. Like Moses and like Franklin, you are about to begin the most exciting journey of discovery you will ever undertake.

Welcome to Penn, my friends: Welcome home. Thank you.

Images available on President Gutmann's Flickr gallery.