August 25, 2015

By Amy Gutmann

Welcome to Endless Discovery

Members of the Class of 2019 and transfers: Welcome!

Tomorrow, you face your first day of classes. You're ready, you're excited, and you're committed to achieving great things. Tonight’s a perfect chance to look and see just how far you’ve traveled as a class to be here—from across the country and around the world:

From California to Illinois to Massachusetts;

From Texas to Florida to New York;

And, of course, from the great state of Pennsylvania.

You come from Canada and from Korea, from India and the United Kingdom, and from 74 countries far and near.

You come from many cultures and many different walks of life.

No matter where you come from, I want you to know this: We are thrilled you’re here! Today you join centuries of Penn explorers, engineers and entrepreneurs, playwrights, professors, physicists and physicians, nation builders, nurses, novelists and Nobel Laureates. You join the likes of Benjamin Franklin, W.E.B. DuBois, and six signers of the U.S. Constitution.

And you share something very special with all these Penn people—past, present, and future. You share in the pursuit of discovery.

The pursuit of discovery is the very essence of the Penn experience. It will require you to recognize how much you don’t know but are perfectly positioned to discover—about your major, about your world, about yourself. You are on a journey of discovery to grasp unexpected insights and bring new understanding to light.

Your journey of discovery officially begins this evening as we formally welcome you to your new home with this tradition called Convocation. Convocation -- from the Latin convocāre. The root, vocāre, means "to call." Together with the prefix, con, the Latin term for this event very roughly translates "to get up the nerve to call that person I don’t know who is sitting near me."

So that is precisely what you are about to do! But not with your cell phones.

I want everyone to stand up. Yes, go ahead and stretch your legs.

Good. Discovery begins now. I want you to look around and greet somebody near you whom you haven’t met before -- someone you didn't come here with, someone you've possibly never seen before.

Learn their name, shake hands, ask where they’re from, and of course, exchange a big smile. Come on now, no exceptions—even me!

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

I will hazard a guess that no one here tonight introduced themselves by the name of Copernicus. Yet each of you just engaged in a small act of discovery. And it went well, notwithstanding the fact that, if you’re like most of us, you first had to overcome something.

You had to overcome the discomfort of leaving behind the familiar and stepping out into undiscovered territory. As the map makers of old labeled it, you paid a visit to terra incognita -- the unknown land. And that can be unnerving.

It's frightening to put ourselves in a position where we don’t know what happens next. When we consider out-of-the-blue introducing ourselves to a total stranger, our minds so often play tricks on us. We construct imagined scenarios of being rejected or scorned or even humiliated.

In exactly the same way, we human beings tend to create imagined barriers when introduced to strange new ideas. New ideas upend the status quo and force us out of our comfort zones. As a result, new ideas are too often met with dismissal and disdain.

The single greatest impediment to discovery is our natural inclination to believe we know all there is to know about something. So often, the obstacle to discovery is the illusion of knowledge.

A case in point: If you saw the movie Jurassic World this summer, as I did, then you know what the great predatory dinosaur Tyrannosaurus Rex looks like. You know they were smooth-skinned reptiles with big teeth and sharp claws, powerful legs, and a swinging tail. They are creatures of nightmares. You know that when they look at you, all they see is lunch.

But in the past couple of decades new ideas have emerged. There's a theory that these dinosaurs were the ancestors of modern birds and were in some important ways bird-like.

With the work of leading paleontologists like Penn’s own Professor Peter Dodson, evidence has grown, and today, this theory is widely credited.

Recently, we also have made some incredible fossil discoveries, especially in the northwestern region of China. There is now a growing body of scientific evidence that this family of dinosaurs were quite likely covered in feathers.

So here is an experiment in getting past what we think we already know: I want you to imagine T. Rex covered in feathers, bright red and blue plumage. It's now a P. Rex: Pennosaurus Rex.

Not quite so frightening, is it? You are seeing it in a different way. You are seeing something new. Congratulations – you are on the road to discovery.

When we make that leap and add the feathers it frees us to imagine the T. Rex in new ways. We can break away from what we thought we knew. We can leave behind the Hollywood images of the great gray-green lizard roaring thru the Jurassic jungle. We’re ready to make true discoveries.

We become open to the very real possibility that there is more—more to learn, more to know, more to discover. We open ourselves to a true education of the highest order—the Penn order.

There will never be a better time in your lives or a better place than Penn to explore new ideas in this unsettling yet uplifting way.

Here, you will be surrounded by people who have dedicated their lives to the possibility of more -- to the challenging and path-breaking work of discovery.

You will ask hard questions and shake off what you think you know to discover truths about yourself and the wider world that you could not have imagined before convocating at Penn.

Your Penn experience will be challenging. It will be exhilarating. In turn, you will be inspired, confused, uneasy, and delighted. That is exactly why you are here. You are on the road to terra incognita. Down this path lies discovery.

But you don't tread this path alone.

Just as every one of us must fight the belief that we know everything, so too do we have to ask for help when we need it.

Here at Penn, you are surrounded by a community of friends, mentors, professionals, and excellent services, all committed to your success and wellbeing. Challenges are inevitable. Setbacks will occur.

But you’re not alone in navigating them. We are right here with you and ready to help. Never ever hesitate to ask for help. That’s what we are here for. Asking for help—far from signaling weakness or failure-- is a most positive sign that you appreciate something very profound: no one, and that includes you and me, ever makes it through college, let alone life, on our own. The sooner we learn that lesson, the stronger and more successful we are likely to be.

And so, from the small discoveries you’ve made today, to the amazing revelations you’ll enjoy during your years at Penn, you are in for a time that will transform your life.

Welcome to endless discovery.

This is your time. Penn is your place.

Let us begin.