A Pitch for the Uncharted Path

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In her first official address to the Class of 2012, Penn President Amy Gutmann told a story about two collegians on a blind date in 1967. “On the subway ride,” Gutmann said, “the young man asked his date what she wanted to do after graduating. ‘I’d like to teach high school math,’ she replied … She had chosen to major in math because she had excelled in math and science. ‘What about you?’ she asked. The young man replied, without missing a beat, ‘I want to be the chief theater critic for The New York Times.’” 

The anonymous beau did indeed become the Times’ chief theater critic, eventually. But the math major challenged herself with unfamiliar courses, switched majors, and became a scholar and professor of political science. Straying still further from her initial calling, she finally became Penn’s president. 

The point, Gutmann told the new class—whose members hail from all 50 states as well as 62 countries—is that the college experience is about more than treading a straight and narrow path toward a predetermined career goal. “On the road to Commencement,” she advised, “many of you will switch majors—and perhaps like me, also undergo a major academic conversion. But even if you are among the few, like my blind date, who actually wind up achieving your original goals, you will excel to the extent that you do not stick to the prevailing script. Those who reach the summit of their chosen callings travel unconventional paths.”

Convocation opened with a prayer by new University chaplain Charles “Chaz” Howard C’00 [“Gazetteer,” Sept|Oct]. Then Eric Kaplan, who was the interim dean of admissions during the incoming class’s application season, lauded the creativity in this year’s crop of “page 217 of your autobiography” essays. Among the characters in the fake memoirs this year were an Olympic medalist, a Nobel Prize winner, a U.S. president, and a time-travel inventor. He urged the students to relish the opportunities the University provides, saying, “No risk you have taken up until this point will be as rewarding, as challenging, or as transformative as the intellectual, personal, and professional risks you will take as a student at Penn.” After Dr. Gutmann’s speech and an a capella performance by the Penny Loafers, Provost Ron Daniels channeled the Roman poet Ovid in his remarks about the transformations in store for the Class of 2012. “Ovid frequently acknowledges the ‘uncertainty’ that accompanies transformation,” Daniels said. “I suspect many of you are experiencing that kind of uncertainty this very moment: What will I major in? Who will I become close to? How will I change and what will I become?” Daniels encouraged the new Quakers to “allow yourself to stretch out your process of transformation over the course of the next four years—at least,” and echoed Gutmann’s hope that they would be open to taking alternate routes to their final destinations.

Lee Spelman Doty W’76, newly appointed president of Penn Alumni, ended the speeches, reminding the students that their support structures were not limited to campus, but extended to the 300,000-strong network of Penn alumni around the world. “Penn alumni are passionate about their university,” Doty said. “The reputation Penn enjoys today under the dynamic leadership of Dr. Gutmann would not be possible without the tireless commitment of our alumni, who give so generously of their time and resources.” She mentioned alumni-endowed scholarships, professorships, and new buildings as evidence of this commitment. In closing, Doty reminded the students of how short four years can seem from the far end. 

“It’s such a cliché to say the years fly by,” she mused, “but they really do, so seize the moment and make every day count.” 

—Carter Johns C’07

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