Graduation, Westeros Style

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SLIDESHOW | Photography by Addison Geary

Penn’s 259th Commencement was doubtless the first to feature the Game of Thrones theme song.

On the sunny, humid morning of May 18, as umbrellas peeked out of the bleachers at Franklin Field and the Class of 2015 began to sweat in their long black gowns, Penn President Amy Gutmann praised the new graduates’ ability to look past their own streets, families, and tribes.

“No fewer than 90 countries are represented among the members of the undergraduate Class of 2015,” said Gutmann. “You transcend oceans and mountains … you leap boundaries made by history, ideology, and faith. When I talk about bringing the world to Penn and Penn to the world, I’m describing something infinitely more profound than time zone differences and jet plane travel.”

Cue a video flashing the faces of Penn students from around the world, flags being pinned on a yellowed map, and a CGI-version of Penn’s campus springing up as the Game of Thrones theme boomed in the background, which drew a few incredulous laughs.

Gutmann joked that the HBO hit made for a fitting contrast with this year’s keynote speaker, US Ambassador Samantha Power. “After all,” she said, “our Commencement speaker will be talking about what she’s seen working at the United Nations. One is a tale of the titanic struggle of wills and a world perpetually at the edge of catastrophe. And the other is a story about Westeros.”

“The world outside Penn’s walls leaves a lot to be desired,” Power agreed as she took the stage after Gutmann. “That is diplomatic speak for: Things are really screwed up!”

But Power—who has served on the National Security Council, won a Pulitzer Prize, and has been the US Ambassador to the United Nations for the last two years—declared that fixing the world’s ailments does not always begin with knowing exactly what to do.

“If you want to change the world, start by acting ‘as if,’” she said. “Prior generations have put this a different way— ‘Fake it ’til you make it.’”

Power recalls acting ‘as if’ after she was touched by images of the 1990s atrocities in Yugoslavia. “What could I, a history major, do that was useful?” she recalls asking herself. “I decided—ridiculously in retrospect—that my experience covering women’s volleyball for my college newspaper was sufficient for me to at least try to become a war correspondent.” She went to the Balkans and tried to imitate the journalists around her who seemed to know what they were doing. “And with each story I reported,” she said, “this became less of an act and more of a reality.”

Second, “know something about something,” Power continued. “You can start by reading more than 140-character-long publications by those who have thought about a problem before you. You can track down experts and pepper them with questions—and then read and learn some more. If you’re interested in international issues, you can learn a language … And when you believe you know something—and may even have arrived at a theory of how change might come—get out to the place where the problem actually lives. Go to the field.”

Power also reminded graduates to find the bright spots in a world plagued, no less than Westeros, by atrocities. She spoke of “the hug heard around the world,” when, at the peak of the Ebola hysteria, President Obama hugged a nurse who had survived the disease but was stigmatized as a potential carrier. She told the story of Binta Ibrahim, a 16-year-old Muslim girl who carried three young Christian children to safety after Boko Haram attacked her town in Nigeria. And she talked about Puentes de Salud, a volunteer-run program founded by Penn doctors when they noticed an increasing number of undocumented immigrants seeking help at Penn hospitals for preventable illnesses [“Gazetteer,” May|June].

“Class of 2015: You are going out into a world of profound challenges, it goes without saying,” Power concluded. “But the Binta Ibrahims and the Puentes of the world show us that—whether in Nigeria or in Philadelphia—the path to solving these big problems begins with small solutions.

“And it starts with individuals. Individuals like you.”

—Phoebe Low C’17
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