“Extreme” Advice to Freshmen: Be an Action-Learner

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The folding chairs, damp with afternoon rain, had been dried with blowers. The bagpipers reported to campus toting umbrellas, just in case. And as a wind ruffled the red and blue flags arranged on College Green for the annual Freshman Convocation, President Rodin greeted the Class of 2007 with some high expectations. 

“We’re counting on you to have a huge impact on our teaching and our research and perhaps to help us save the world,” she said, standing at a podium in front of College Hall—“not that you should feel any pressure right at the start.”

Among their classmates, she told them, are a student who invented a mechanism to help late-sleepers wake up when their alarms go off (by elevating the upper half of the bed), a champion weight-lifter who’s also skilled in the Japanese culinary arts, and an Iraqi woman who wrote a wartime diary as bombs fell over Baghdad. (Her account was to be published this fall.) 

Nope. No pressure at all.

Rodin went on to assure any students who felt intimidated by this lineup that, “Each of you is exceptional in some way, or you wouldn’t be here.”

As she encouraged the freshmen to take the initiative in their educational experience, Rodin used the metaphor of extreme sports. Though vertical skateboarding is discouraged—even banned—on campus, she joked, “We at Penn are into extreme academics and extreme action-learning. Faculty and students are constantly challenging conventional thinking, pushing each other higher and higher. And we’re always putting ourselves and our learning and our service to the test. And now it is your turn to become an action-learner at Penn.

“Think you can come up with a formula to bring peace to the Middle East? Start working on it. Think you can outdo F. Scott Fitzgerald and write a novel that records the struggles and joys and aspirations of your generation? Do it. Eager to launch a biz? Then move on it.”

Provost Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’72 GM’73 warned students not to let their pursuit of a profession or academic specialty get in the way of broader intellectual exposure. “We support your aspirations to become the best investment bankers, the most creative writers, the most skilled researchers of your generation,” he said. “But we also want you to be the most involved and contributing citizens in your community. While the first goal requires depth of knowledge, the second requires breadth.” The real object of a great education, he told them, is “building a broad knowledge base for lifelong learning.” 

But students’ time at Penn shouldn’t focus only on the classroom, he said. “Don’t miss the parties, the basketball games, the great concerts, the special lectures.” He then offered advice that Penn graduates still heed, year after year, at Homecoming: “Throw toast at a football game.”


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