On a clear September evening, the old stone facade of College Hall was lit red and blue to celebrate the convocation of the Class of 2014. Dean of Admissions Eric Furda C’87 passed an official Penn Relay baton to President Amy Gutmann, introducing her to a group he called “2,500 of the brightest young minds in the world.”
“Less than a year ago,” Gutmann said, “you were working on your applications, and wondering if you would stand out in the most crowded field in Penn’s history—26,938 of your peers applied for admission with you.”
For that application, she recalled, they each had to write an essay that answered the question: Why Penn? “It’s a tough question,” she said, “and because you answered it for us, I’m going to answer it for you.
“Why Penn? Because we want you to pursue your passion and combine it with purpose.” Dedication to learning is part of what drew Penn to the members of the Class of 2014, she said, and now they have the opportunity “both to explore broadly, and focus intensely” on what matters most to them. “Your classes will be challenging,” she said, and “your professors will demand your best work. They will be happiest when you succeed, and they will help you succeed.”
She quoted Ben Franklin’s definition of true merit—“an inclination joined with an ability to serve humankind”—and closed by reminding the new freshmen: “The role you play is limited only by your imagination.”
When Provost Vincent Price stepped up to the podium, he pointed to an empty space on the lawn beside him. Noting that some of the freshmen “may have noticed what’s missing here on College Green” since the campus tours they took as prospective students, he explained: “In late June a tremendous summer storm barreled through Philadelphia,” damaging a number of trees. One of them was the 114-year-old American elm he’d become accustomed to seeing every morning out his office window. The storm had split the tree in half, and eventually the whole thing had to be taken down. “It turned out that the two sides of the tree were interdependent,” Price said.
“Penn too was founded with a dual purpose,” he continued. “Franklin’s public academy, as he called it, was to teach both the practical and the theoretical—what he termed the useful and the ornamental.” These two branches of learning are each reliant on the other, to provide the sort of complete education that serves society.
“[Franklin] insisted on a multidisciplinary education,” said Price, “long before that term was invented.”
Price told the new freshman that their next four years would require careful balance. “Plan, but don’t fear being in the moment. Consider the future, but don’t obsess about it. Work hard, but enjoy yourself.”
Finally, Penn Alumni President Lee Spelman Doty W’76 reminded the Class of 2014 that they were joining a community of “over 250,000 Penn alumni, located all across the globe.”
“Look up Penn alumni on Wikipedia,” she said. “You will be amazed at the long list of graduates who have achieved eminence in their fields, and someday we know you will be among them.
“Good luck to each of you,” she said. “You’re going to have the time of your lives.”
–Sean Whiteman LPS’11