On the cool, clear evening of September 5, assembled beneath the slender sugar maples and towering American elms in front of College Hall, the Class of 2011 officially joined the University of Pennsylvania. President Amy Gutmann welcomed the incoming freshmen by paying tribute to both their accomplishments and the company they will soon be keeping.
“You are the most academically talented class in Penn’s history,” she said, “and you’ve got exactly a year to enjoy the view from the top, before the even more talented class of 2012 knocks you into second place.”
After eliciting cheers from the class’s 203 members from California, 406 from Pennsylvania, and a grand total of two from Idaho—not quite as loud but at least as spirited—Gutmann lauded the large international contingent on hand.
“Among you also are 312 classmates from 67 countries, starting alphabetically with the A’s and B’s—Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Brunei, and Bulgaria— right down to the Z’s of Zambia and Zimbabwe.”
In a short speech, she urged all of them to begin their collegiate careers with the number 45 firmly in their heads. “Why 45? Because that is the number of months left before each of you processes down Locust Walk for Commencement.
“I want you this evening to ask yourself the following question: How will I spend those 45 months? There are only 45 of them. And I offer to you this evening two unwritten and totally unenforceable Penn rules.
“Keep your mind open,” she continued. “Great minds discover deeper truths by probing the toughest questions. Do not let criticism faze you, do not let setbacks discourage you, do not let change frighten you. Convert every jolt into a learning experience.”
Secondly, she said, “Aim high—as high as you can, in unconventional and original ways.”
Provost Ron Daniels echoed those sentiments, warning that the next four years would fly by. “But I urge you to resist the temptation to fly with them,” he said. “You have to give yourselves the freedom to wander if you’re going to make the most of your time here.”
Characterizing the undergraduate experience as a “series of conversations” that take place in expected and unexpected places, from the front rows of a classroom to a noontime line at a Spruce Street food truck, Daniels celebrated the transformative potential of these exchanges.
“I’m betting that some of these conversations will unsettle you, will topple your sense of the world and the things you know to be true,” he predicted. “Good. This is the point of the Penn conversation: to discover a deeper and truer sense of the world and your place in it, even at the risk of upending received wisdom.”
As though to emphasize just how quickly and profoundly the world itself can change, University Trustee Paul Williams W’67, president of Penn Alumni, recalled that in his days as a student, the most powerful computer on campus was inferior to a modern iPod despite a gross tonnage that had to be distributed among several rooms.
“Attending Penn today, in the age of Google—and without parietal rules—would have been an answered prayer,” he said.
Finally, to bring convocation to a close, Williams implored the Class of 2011 to look at the next four years not just as an ephemeral phase of youth but as something much more permanent.
“Make a difference,” he said. “Go the extra mile. It’s more than 45 months. It will guide the rest of your life.”