The last row of chairs at Convocation was an ideal spot to frame a selfie against the backdrop of College Hall and the Class of 2018, an opportunity not lost on many smartphone-wielding matriculants perhaps more accustomed to sitting at the front of the class. On a limpid evening, Penn’s newest freshmen documented their participation in a ceremony that Provost Vincent Price called “bigger than a Meetup, and less ephemeral than Snapchat.”
For a moment it looked like Penn President Amy Gutmann would get in on the selfie action, too. After bidding the assembly to stand up and greet their neighbors, Gutmann welcomed about 10 new Quakers to the dais. She pressed the group together for a photo—causing one young man to reflexively produce a smartphone before the president pointed to an official photographer.
“Engagement begins quite simply,” Gutmann declared after the stage cleared, sounding the dominant theme of the evening.
“It begins, like we just began, with a brush of humanity—extended hands, a fist bump, a shared smile … From those unscripted, serendipitous moments, our efforts spread,” she continued.
“Of course a smile and a handshake is not enough to move the needle on many challenges … the really tough challenges. You need deep understanding. You need collaboration and you need access to diverse ideas. That’s what you’ll find here at Penn. All you have to do is take the initiative.”
“Be joiners,” she exhorted the Class of 2018. “Join with the Netter Center. Join the Civic House. Join the Fox Leadership Program to enrich your education with dynamic social service. And keep this in mind: none of us succeeds on our own. Our individual success depends on the contributions of communities. Sure, it depends on our hard work and our talent, but that alone won’t do it. We also depend on communities. Joining is the first step. Engagement comes next.”
Provost Price, Dean of Admissions Eric Furda C’87, and Penn Trustee M. Claire Lomax C’84 articulated variations on this theme. But it may have resonated most deeply in University Chaplain Charles Howard C’00’s prayer for the Class of 2018.
“What an impressive class they are,” Howard remarked. “But my prayer for them is that they would be free from the need to impress anyone ever again. So much of the work of high school, indeed so much of life, holds that temptation: the temptation to work for the approval of others. I pray that these young women and men would rather work to bring about positive societal change. And that they choose their fields of study and future vocations not for prestige, but because it’s their passion, and their calling.”—T.P.