A Long-Delayed, In-Person Commencement for 2020 and 2021 Graduates, Too

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“It is never too late to turn around and finish what you started. It is never too late to try again. It is never too late to chase a dream held in your heart. … And it’s never too late to celebrate.”

So said University chaplain and vice president for social equity and community Charles “Chaz” Howard C’00 during the invocation for Penn’s long-awaited in-person Commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020 as well as Class of 2021 master’s and doctoral graduates.

Roughly 3,500 graduates returned to Franklin Field on May 22 to celebrate their graduations, which, like so many other things, had previously been pushed to a virtual format because of the pandemic. And more than 12,000 guests filled the stadium stands on a scorching day to cheer on, as Penn Interim President Wendell Pritchett Gr’97 called them, “the oft delayed but never deterred, most amazing, most incredible Class of 2020.”

Angela Duckworth G’03 Gr’06, the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor in Penn’s psychology department and a renowned expert on “grit,” was a fitting keynote speaker for the ceremony. Duckworth took a novel approach to address the graduates’ grit by comparing them to a paramecium—“among the most primitive of organisms, just a fifth of a millimeter in length at full maturity, just one cell,” she said.

What could this brainless, single-celled organism have in common with the very human members of the Class of 2020? According to Duckworth, the answer lies in the “one basic principle” of how the paramecium survives and thrives: “If things are getting better, keep swimming in that direction—and if not, change course.”

“More and more, I’m convinced that the vast majority of world-class performers struggled for years figuring out where they were heading,” Duckworth continued. Whether an elite athlete or a Nobel laureate, the highest achieving among us “tend to take a longer, more winding path than you might imagine,” and often explore many different interests and passions before specializing in one area—something Duckworth termed “sampling.”

“Graduates, perhaps achieving the milestone of this degree makes you feel like time is running out,” Duckworth told the crowd. But “with a lot more living to do,” she encouraged them to “make a little room for sampling” before finding their way in life, while crediting this “paramecium principle” for helping her become the specialist she is today.

“My advice is not to worry if you don’t have your whole life mapped out right now,” the psychology professor said. “If you feel a little lost, try something new—a new job, a new city, a new friendship. If you feel like things are getting better, keep going in that direction. And if not, change course.”

Daphne Glatter C’25

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