The rain beat down on a sea of white, red, and navy blue umbrellas; huddled beneath them sat the class of 2010. As a crowd of onlookers braved the elements to watch the ceremony in front of College Hall, President Amy Gutmann told the amassed freshman why they were picked to become the newest faces on campus.
“You might be curious about why we chose you,” she said, “and I can answer that question in two words that capture both the Penn zeitgeist and the quality that our admissions office found in each and every one of you: passionate intensity. We detect in you the passionate intensity to take chances, to catch fire, and to grow into truth seekers, lifesavers, and world changers.”
The phrase, she noted, comes from William Butler Yeats’ powerful poem “The Second Coming,” written shortly after the horrors of World War I. While the poet wrote that “the worst” of people are filled with that trait, Gutmann noted, the quality can also be a wonderfully positive one.
“Passionate intensity is often identified with fanaticism, especially in popular culture,” she told the students. “Far too much of what passes for public debate in the media these days resembles a mud-wrestling match, only with far less demonstrable skill. It does not have to be that way; it should not be that way; and it certainly is not that way at Penn. Edifying debates take place all over this campus. It is a hallmark of Penn that our students, faculty, and staff join these debates with gusto, and show respect to those who may disagree.”
While recognizing the turbulence we face as a nation—dealing with war, the ongoing rebuilding of the New Orleans community, and the threats of terrorism, infectious diseases, environmental degradation, and global warming—Gutmann revealed a hope invested in this new generation: “We will expect you to be passionate in your pursuit of the truth. That’s because we want you and your Penn education to make a major positive difference in our world.”
In the presence of an unprecedented technology boom, Gutmann proclaimed that this class would be “the first to be wireless and always connected,” adding that she trusted that none of the freshmen “would dream of text messaging friends back home during convocation.” A few students, guilty of this venial charge, giggled at the anonymous calling-out while she continued, “However often you IM your friends, be sure to make the most meaningful connections at Penn.”
Gutmann encouraged the students to appreciate the diverse quality of Penn’s campus. “You undoubtedly note,” she said, “that I am passionately intense about education, democracy, and Penn. I am just as avid about friendship. If I could leave you with only one piece of advice, for your life’s success and betterment of our world today, it would be this: Take advantage of the greatest gift that our global campus has to offer, a chance of a lifetime to form lifelong friendships across ethnic and economic, racial, and religious boundaries. The ties you form can help to heal a world torn asunder by a failure to connect across divides. Nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
Second-year Provost Ronald Daniels asked the freshmen to think of him “as a sophomore, as someone who knows the ropes,” and gave the students a vivid illustration of the potential to interact with future world-changers.
“In 1902, one Penn poet met another,” he pointed out. “William Carlos Williams [M1906 Hon’52] and Ezra Pound [C’05 G’06] hit it off right away. At Penn they were just students hanging out, meeting girls and arguing about books, but the friendship they formed here would become one of the greatest friendships in literary history, paving the way for the birth of modern poetry.”
Daniels urged the class of 2010 to expand their horizons as they explore new frontiers. “I urge you,” he said, “to engage with one another; try your best to cross small boundaries every day. You have each come to this campus with a unique set of beliefs and values, and in four years, you will leave it with many of them intact. But in between, your experiences will be enriched, your critical-thinking skills sharpened, and your ideas challenged and refined from your studies in this vibrant intellectual community.”
He explained that though many voices would give them advice, they would make their own final decisions. “You will be amazed,” he added, “at what grows of your own initiative.”
Penn Alumni President Paul Williams W’67 was the last to address the class. He urged them to be mindful of the potential support they could receive from the “290,000 Penn alums worldwide.” He then recounted the changes to the campus since his undergraduate days, including the completion of Van Pelt library, the construction of Meyerson and Huntsman halls, and the raising of the 38th Street bridge.
“The transformation which has occurred and continues to occur is emblematic of the University’s impact on our lives,” he said. “As you embark forward on this formative journey, know that the Penn alumni community will be there to continue to support and encourage you all along the way.”
—Carter Johns C’07