Opening Convocation: Taking It From the Top

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A shining Mylar balloon, shaped like a star, drifted up over the tables of incoming freshmen in the Philadelphia Civic Center’s Convention Hall. Giant ribbons of red and blue soared up to the drop-ceiling, framed by spotlights. Flags and signs in the aisles, bringing to mind a political convention, identified Penn’s different College Houses. And some 2,200 young men and women, all members of the Class of 2004, sat talking to their new classmates, finishing their catered dinner and waiting for Penn’s president to give a speech.
    It was September 6, and Opening Convocation was about to commence.
    Then the Penn Band struck up a brassy rendition of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”; the Academic Procession made its medieval entrance in gowns and caps; and William C. Gipson, the chaplain, offered a heavily Penn-centric prayer. Finally President Judith Rodin CW’66 took the stage.
    “It is a pleasure to welcome you to Penn as you begin a challenging journey that—contrary to rumor—will not resemble a four-year run of Survivor,” said Rodin, adding: “Our goal is to provide a transformational life experience, one in which each of you grows intellectually, socially and morally into outstanding young men and women who will make Penn and the world better than you found them.”
    While on the subject of transformations, Rodin played off the central metaphor of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which had been read and
discussed by the incoming freshman that afternoon as part of this year’s Penn Reading Project (PRP) [“Gazetteer,” July/August].
    Had Kafka been living in Philadelphia, she mused, “he might have penned a variation of the transformation theme,” to wit:
    “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from anxious dreams of proseminars, orientation sessions and convocations, he found himself transformed into a giant Penn student. He was lying on his back in his College House dorm, and when he lifted his head a little he could see a tall stack of books, his first checkbook to balance, and a huge load of laundry that he would have to do for the first time in his life.
    “What has happened to me? he thought.
    “It was no dream. Gregor had entered a new world—the world of Penn, an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns unchanged.”
    The Metamorphosis also worked its way into the remarks of Dr. Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’72 GM’73, the provost, who noted that his PRP study group was “definitely of the opinion that being a Penn student was two steps above being a bug and at least three steps above being a Princeton student.”
    Barchi told the new freshmen that it was a “fantastic time to be joining our community of scholars; a time both of intellectual discovery and of eager anticipation of discoveries yet to be made—a time ideally suited to curious and creative minds like yours.” And, like Rodin, he sought to alleviate any performance anxieties they might have:
    “You’ve all heard those stories about marine boot-camp training where new recruits are told to look to their right and look to their left and know that of every three individuals who start, only one will make it through the end. Your experience here will be very different. We know that we have already selected the very best and the very brightest students in the world. Our job is not to ‘weed you out’; it is to help you grow.”
    But Barchi also addressed a problem of growing concern to the faculty: cheating and plagiarism. During their upcoming years at Penn, he told the students, “it may seem at times that the level of competition you face could force you to compromise the very integrity that brought you to us.” But, he warned: “Do not allow yourselves to be lured by the temptation of a shortcut here and there on your way to academic excellence. Integrity does not offer any shortcuts; there are no abbreviations in the true pursuit of knowledge.
    “At Penn, we value intellectual honesty and integrity as highly as we value achievement and knowledge. We expect you to rise on your own merits and we will provide ample support to help you get there if you should need a hand.”
    Barchi concluded by saying that in four years, he hoped the students would be “eager to start your new life but will sorely miss the Red and Blue.” A few minutes later they stood up to sing “The Red and Blue” for the first time. And a few minutes after that, they were walking back out into the September evening, returning to their new homes.

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