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Asked to sum up Penn, students responded with poise, candor, and insight.


By Amy Gutmann | Quick: Off the top of your head, describe Penn in just three words.

More than a diverting brain teaser, Penn-in-three-words actually proved to be an artful challenge; it seems an impossible task to confine a powerhouse like Penn within a word corral held up with only three posts. And yet, in everyday life, there are whole philosophies captured this way. Let it be. Seize the day. Don’t look back. Stay the course. Shoot the moon. I love you. So often, three words—the right three words—can sum it all up.

What then happens when you ask our students, off the top of their heads, to sum it all up so succinctly about Penn? Over the past year, I have had the occasion to find out. Beginning in March of 2016, I traveled across the country and over the world with different cohorts of our undergraduate students to 10 different cities as part of the Our Penn tour. We started in Atlanta and concluded early this spring in Hong Kong. Appropriately subtitled Let the Conversations Begin, every visit provided a unique opportunity for me to engage three different students in unrehearsed, free-ranging, and lively discussions, each in a new setting with hundreds of Penn people in attendance. All told, some 4,000 alumni and friends of Penn joined us at these events, no two of which were ever quite alike.

The difference, of course, was the students themselves, who were nothing short of remarkable. They came from each of our four undergraduate schools and were members of the Classes of 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. They were as diverse in their academic interests and career goals as they were multifarious in their lives and previous histories before coming to Penn and free in their thoughts and opinions about their own unique Penn experience. With one exception, I was meeting all the students for the first time at these events. The only constant I can say about this group of 30 uniquely talented and spirited young men and women was their shared propensity to amaze, amuse, and impress both me and our audience. They surprised us, too.

In our inaugural event, Wharton sophomore Kayvon Asemani revealed that beyond business he has a passion for hip hop performance and—with the slightest nudge from me—Kayvon offered up an impromptu rap for the occasion. It was a big hit, and so I began exploring our students’ artistic talents as part of my questions. As a result, in the course of the tour we were treated to an astonishing assortment of capabilities, including an original spoken word performance, a rendition of Handel’s operatic “Where’er You Walk,” a verse of “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel, a Beatboxed interpretation of “Hurrah, Hurrah, Pennsylvania,” a version of “The Red and Blue” performed in Hebrew, and (how very Penn!) a wildly original mashup of verses in Hindi, Mandarin, and English sung a cappella at the final event in Hong Kong.

These performances were like icing on the cake. Without exception, every one of our students dazzled with academic and extracurricular achievement and by their unpretentious poise and candid openness. They did not hesitate to share what they found most challenging, enlightening and life-transforming about their Penn experiences. And they shared their stories extemporaneously, not only with me but, more impressively, with a large, diverse, and intently focused audience. So much exuberant talent was on display, and every story was distinctive and—above all—passionately real.

This is where the Penn-in-three-words challenge proved instructive. In each city, I waited until near the end of our conversation, after the audience and I had been given a chance to get to know our student guests, to ask each in a “lightning round” to give us their take on Penn in three words. If you thought coming up with the right three words was difficult at the top of this page, just imagine doing so in front of a large live audience. Every participant rose to the occasion. Their responses offered a revealing glimpse into how Penn students see their university today. Some words occurred repeatedly: exciting topped the list at four mentions. Just behind that came both challenging and fun at three mentions each, further proof (if any were needed) that Penn students enjoy a challenge. That includes, we now know, the challenge of coming up with three words on the spot. “Challenging, welcoming, and exciting” was one among many revealing threesomes that strongly resonated with our audience.

In London, Engineering senior Alexis Block originally offered up “Incredible opportunities abound,” while in Chicago, Engineering senior William Duckworth held my gaze seriously for a moment then deadpanned, “Inclusion, Innovation, Impact,” neatly recalling the three central tenets of Penn Compact 2020 that we announced in August 2013. For that, he received a fist bump from me—and cheers from the audience.

What is especially telling though, is how the words our students chose so aptly describe the institution our alumni have known and loved over the years. Penn—as they and our audiences affirmed—is inspiring, exciting, transformative, a university that asks and receives the best from its students as well as from its unparalleled faculty and staff. Penn students find passion, adventure, and opportunity in an environment that is collaborative, creative, and fun. And lest anyone imagine their memories of long nights, hard work, and the very real difficulty inherent in mastering a first-rate education are ghosts of a different era, be assured: Penn, say our students, remains as challenging, intense, and thought-provoking as it ever has been. In fact, if one theme emerged again and again across wide-ranging discussions in 10 different cities, it was that this experience of being intellectually stretched and pulled, moved, jolted, and shaken is what makes their time at the university so powerfully important and true.

That, I suspect, is what resonated most deeply with our audiences, who were keenly focused and engaged throughout each of the conversations. Afterwards, we heard high praise from many of them. “I LOVED listening to the students—they did not disappoint!” is how a 1965 graduate of the School of Arts and Sciences described our visit to Boston. In Chicago, an SAS/Wharton dual degree graduate from the Class of 1975 captured the feel of each of the events, declaring, “I found it very, very inspiring.” Every evening concluded with a general reception and a chance to mingle. Here, too, a surprise of sorts was in store. The very same students who took my questions before a live audience with such candor and aplomb became a bit unsettled at the prospect of departing the stage and wandering into a room full of complete strangers.

Their worry instantly dissolved as they walked into the warm embrace of an extended family—Our Penn family—who were demonstrably joyful to meet them, congratulate them, slip business cards into their hands while inviting them to be in contact, and most of all, to share their own wonderful stories of their time at Penn. It was Wharton senior Jason Choi—the last student at the last event to be asked to sum up the Penn experience in just three words—who captured the feeling of students and alumni alike most perfectly. When I asked him for his three words, he thought for a moment, then offered: Changed my life.

To which I will add a last three words of my own: Who could argue?

Our Penn: Let the Conversations Begin visited 10 cities in the US, United Kingdom, and China from March of 2016 to March of this year.
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