At Penn’s 257th Commencement ceremony, Joe Biden was rather pleased to receive his honorary doctorate. “This is a much cheaper way to get a degree, isn’t it?” he chuckled.
The vice president is no stranger to Penn. Two of his children are alumni, one of his grandchildren is a student, and in 2010 he spoke at the graduation ceremony for the School of Social Policy and Practice.
But this May, before a crowd of 5,000 graduates and some 20,000 of their friends and relatives, Biden began by cracking wise about a topic that’s gotten a lot of attention in recent years: college tuition.
“When I did my financial disclosure as vice president the first time, The Washington Post said, ‘It’s probable no man has assumed the office of vice president with fewer assets than Joe Biden,’” he said. “I’ll tell you why I had no money: four years of Penn, three years of Syracuse, four years at Georgetown, three years at Yale, two years at Tulane, two years at Penn, and now a granddaughter at Penn!”
As the crowd burst out laughing, Biden continued, “To all the parents, I offer special congratulations today. Not only have your sons and daughters completed an education,” but, he added, “parents, you’re also about to get a pay raise!”
Jokes aside, Biden assured the grads that “it’s worth it.” Their Penn educations would not go to waste.
As Penn President Amy Gutmann, who preceded Biden at the podium, maintained, money is not the object. “The contributions of a Penn education can never be rightly measured by your first paycheck, or even your lifetime income,” she said. “At the end of the day, it won’t be what you take but what you give that matters.”
And Gutmann established that she expects the graduates to give—and accomplish—a lot. “Nothing less than the hope of our society and much of the world depends, above all else, on you using your Penn education to live a rewarding life of service,” she said.
But, as hints of sunlight began to stream down on the uncharacteristically frigid spring morning, Gutmann was also full of optimism. “Your efforts will bring unrivaled and often unexpected rewards for the good deeds you do,” she told the Class of 2013.
Optimism was the theme of the day. Even Biden, who insisted that he had “gained too much wisdom to offer any advice,” offered one bit of counsel: “Don’t listen to the cynics.”
Adapting a dictum he often used on the campaign trail, Biden asserted, “It’s never, ever been a good bet to bet against America.” And, he added, “It’s a very bad bet to bet against your generation.”
While he admitted that the graduates are entering a world full of uncertainty, he reassured them, saying, “My generation faced the same kind of questions and uncertainties.”
He recalled, “On the eve of my graduation, Dr. King had been assassinated, the Vietnam War was raging, and in the shadow of my convocation, Robert Kennedy was assassinated.”
Today’s graduates, he went on, face different problems: climate change, terrorism, pandemic disease.
Yet with new challenges come new possibilities, and Biden told the graduates that they should feel confident. He envisioned a future powered by solar energy, where people commute in self-driving electric cars. A future without disease or hunger, but with holographic video conferencing. This future, Biden reminded the graduates, “is within your control.”
And, he pointed out, “you’ve already begun to change things significantly.” He commended social change that young people have inspired in just the past four years, citing the increased national support for LGBT rights as one example.
“We’re better positioned than any nation in the world to lead the 21st century,” Biden exhorted. “We have to take advantage of it.
“No graduating class gets to choose the world into which they graduate,” he went on. “Every graduating class faces unique challenges. Every class enters the history that up to this point has been written for you. But few enter at a point where they genuinely have a chance to write a new chapter, to bend history just a little bit. I would suggest your class has that chance.”
So, he challenged the Class of 2013, “Show us what you can do.”