Embracing Today with an Eye on Tomorrow

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A parable of Penn in these times.

By Amy Gutmann

As I write, our Penn community busily prepares for a historic new beginning. Move-in and orientation have become treasured rites of passage at Penn. Our campus pulses with excited students, siblings, and parents. They push big blue carts of belongings toward a College House destination that will become a new Penn home for each student. Our dedicated move-in staff come prepared to the hilt and eager to help in every way possible. It is a huge welcoming effort, combining a little bit of cacophony with a whole lot of anticipation and exhilaration for the campus living and learning experience of a lifetime.

August marks our first-ever double welcome. We joyfully greet the Classes of both 2024 and 2025 as for the first time they begin their academic year on campus.

The Class of 2025, remarkable by every measure, faced unprecedented COVID-caused challenges in concluding their time in high school and applying to college. We all take special pride in their accomplishments, empathy with their resilience in the face of adversity, and unalloyed delight in being able to watch them grow and thrive at Penn in the years ahead.

The Class of 2024 are already Penn exemplars in so many ways. They had to forego the particular joys of arriving on campus as summer gives way to the fall semester. In September of last year, for the first time ever, Penn could not safely welcome its newest class of students to our physical campus. We chose to ensure their health and safety—and that of our entire community—through virtual matriculation instead. For these adaptable second-year students and their families, particular recognition as well as unique events are therefore very much in order. We celebrate their arrival with a slew of fun-filled activities, and all are conducted in keeping with updated health guidelines. These include a picnic and class photo, walking tours and School-specific events, a uniquely tailored second-year orientation, and perhaps most beloved of all, a postponed-but-not-forgotten gala event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

With an uplifted heart, I look forward to this swirl of welcoming activity commencing a new academic year. I know our students, families, faculty, and staff share my eagerness to resume in-person campus living and learning. We continue working tirelessly toward our goal even as we keep abreast of the latest science and public health precautions in the ongoing pandemic. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that abrupt changes can and do occur. So while Penn currently plans a full return in the fall, we must and we will remain vigilant, resourceful, and nimble.

The Classes of 2024 and 2025 are in so many ways groundbreakers, and not just because of their unusual beginnings. Our second-year students are the first Class to fully engage in Penn’s two-year College House system, which is made possible this semester with the long-anticipated opening of New College House at Walnut and 40th Streets. This 450-bed, 13-floor tower flanked by two five-floor wings embodies and indeed epitomizes the College House ideal that has defined a Penn education for more than two decades now.

Everything we know about what makes the College House experience both a profound learning environment and an unparalleled opportunity to form lifelong friendships has been incorporated into the design of this magnificent new residence. Home to second years, juniors, and seniors, this House will provide the keystone benefits that define the Penn College House experience—faculty leadership and neighbors in the House, and a dedicated staff of professionals to assist with our students’ needs, along with a House staff of student Resident Advisors to provide social and educational programming.

New College House was designed from the ground up to include state-of-the-art in-House amenities such as communal study areas, common living and social spaces, seminar and music practice rooms, and other features that encourage a robust and inclusive community. It features a coffee bar, a meditation room, a fitness space, six club rooms with kitchens, and a tinker space. In the Quaker Kitchen, which is a unique demonstration and teaching kitchen, students will be able to participate in hands-on discovery of different cooking techniques while learning how to prepare a range of healthy and scrumptious recipes. Most importantly, by joining together to enjoy the food they prepare, they discover new friends and shared interests in the process.

In developing these plans, foremost in our minds was the idea that we were designing and building not just for this new Class or this new generation and the Penn of today, but for our university to come: the Penn of the future, and for generations of students who will tread these halls decades and even a century hence.

This is the essence of a forward-facing, future-oriented university—recognizing a profound commitment to meeting the needs of the moment while always looking ahead.

A 10-minute walk away, at the other end of our campus, this same outlook has guided the design and construction of the single biggest building project in Penn’s history, the soon-to-open Pavilion at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. On the site of the former Penn Tower located directly behind the Penn Museum, the Pavilion, Penn’s new 17-story, 1.5 million square foot inpatient hospital, has been designed to deliver the most advanced care today while ensuring innovation in healthcare well into the future. Rooms are equipped to flex between intensive and basic care unit setups, and the Pavilion features an interchangeable platform to readily shape and adapt to the profound evolutions in patient care technology to come.

Far more than a building, the Pavilion represents a new way of delivering care, health, and wellness in the ever-advancing, rapidly evolving context of 21st century medicine. It is both a reflection of Penn Medicine’s global leadership today, and a statement of where we are going to be 100 years from now. Perhaps not surprisingly, proof of concept for such a bold venture arrived long before our planned opening and building dedication this fall. Last year, as the first waves of COVID morbidity challenged medical systems across the country and around the world, construction crews worked around the clock at the new hospital to complete 120 patient rooms fully 15 months ahead of the building’s planned opening. Sixty rooms in the emergency department and 60 inpatient rooms designed for extended care were brought online to serve as overflow spaces for low acuity patients to free up beds at HUP for patients with COVID-19 in the earliest days of the pandemic.

The success of that effort was just one outward manifestation of a far deeper commitment to the fight against COVID-19. For decades prior, Penn medical researchers Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó had been investigating synthetic messenger RNA as a new and completely different way to prompt specific antibodies to fight against a targeted disease. Quietly in their laboratories, without fanfare, they created the breakthrough technologies that underly two of the most effective vaccines being employed to battle the pandemic: the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech shots. This perfectly captures what we do so very intently and well at Penn. Identify an opportunity today. Imagine how it could bring a brighter tomorrow. Then apply intelligence, imagination, grit, time, and determination to do all that is humanly possible to make that far-off dream a reality. We shape the future in what we do, and this year as in every year, we attract some of the very best and brightest young minds who come from across the country and around the world to join us on this journey. They then become prized members of our amazing Penn alumni family.

This sense of untold opportunities ahead imbues our students with palpable excitement to meet the future with the Penn education they receive. In science, medicine, clinical care, and social work, in education and engineering, the humanities, social sciences, architecture and the arts, in business, communication, and law, they will become the discoverers of tomorrow.

This will always remain in my mind, a parable of Penn in these times: a University that—with confidence and focus and verve—confronts the challenges of today always, always, with a keen eye on the needs of tomorrow. This is Penn. Truly, a place and community like no other.

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