Freshman Convocation: The Continuity of Change

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“PENN HAS NEVER BEEN RELUCTANT TO CHANGE,” said Dr. Judith Rodin, CW’66, president of the University, as she addressed the incoming Class of 2002 for the first time. Which may explain why this year’s freshman convocation was held not inside Irvine Auditorium (closed for renovations) or the Palestra (last year’s substitute venue) but outdoors, on College Green. Behind her, beneath a darkening sky, the pale-green limestone of recently renovated College Hall, bathed in soft floodlights, formed a dramatic backdrop.
   “You may be feeling a little anticipation, even a little anxiety,” she added, the thunder rumbling ominously but harmlessly in the distance. “As a psychologist and as someone who sat exactly where you are some 30 years ago, I can tell you that it is perfectly normal.”
   The incoming class, Rodin noted, was selected from the largest applicant pool in Penn’s history, representing 59 nations and 48 states in the Union. The class includes 200 editors of their high-school newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks; 154 student-council and class presidents; 240 community-service volunteers; upwards of 550 team captains; and 24 Olympic hopefuls — not to mention a student in the process of patenting a math theorem, a junior Olympic medalist in table tennis, a pianist at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, the developer of a human-powered airplane, and the founder of a state-wide AIDS organization.
   Dr. Michael Wachter, the interim provost, noted that the class will be “the first generation at Penn to fully experience the dramatic changes that are occurring through distributed learning — learning through the computer and Internet.” He added that the students will also have access to “increased academic support directly in your College Houses 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in math, writing, and research, among other topics.”
   The students got a warning about certain other nighttime activities from Rodin, who noted that last year, “freshmen at MIT and Louisiana died from alcohol overdoses.” Pointing to a recent survey in which “76 percent of Penn students reported that they do not need to be drunk or high to have a good time,” she admonished: “Do not be guided by the perception that everyone drinks.”
   A few days later, however, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that a freshman at Ware College House in the Quad was hospitalized for alcohol-poisoning, and the following week a 17-year-old female freshman was rushed to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania after having reportedly consumed about 10 mixed drinks and at least two shots of tequila at a fraternity party. She was released later that morning and has recovered. Ironically, the University had just released a 10-page report outlining strategies for dealing with binge-drinking.
   Rodin closed her remarks by quoting from a song she had overheard on MTV — “Let me say for the record that my 16-year-old son is the MTV fan” — whose refrain was “[We] can’t be held responsible; we were merely freshmen.”
   “You are not merely freshman,” she said. “You are freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the greatest institutions of higher learning in the nation and the world.”

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