Overcoming Fear, Finding Love

Slideshow | Photography by Tommy Leonardi C’89

A turbulent year at Penn ends with a peaceful and joyous graduation ceremony for the Class of 2024.

Plus: Honorary Degrees

It wasn’t until near the end of the University’s 268th Commencement at Franklin Field that the elephant in the stadium was addressed head on.

“I was asked several times over the last weeks if Penn was going to cancel commencement,” said Charles “Chaz” Howard C’00, the University’s chaplain and vice president for social equity and community, in his benediction. “These seniors, they said, did not have a high school graduation and I’m afraid they will miss their college ceremonies as well.”

That fear was not without merit. Due to nationwide campus protests and encampments over the Israel–Hamas war in Gaza, Columbia and USC canceled  their main commencement ceremonies. At Penn on Monday, May 20, the trepidation was palpable and some changes perceptible. The traditional graduate procession down Locust Walk was scrapped, with much of the area fenced off after the University had dismantled the Penn encampment on College Green 10 days prior; instead graduates commenced at Penn Park, marching between Shoemaker Green and the north side of Franklin Field before entering the stadium. There was a heavy police presence along 33rd and 34th Streets, and an airport-style security check led to a snarled line for parents and guests that stretched along Spruce Street and up 33rd all the way to Walnut. And an announcement from the Franklin Field loudspeaker before the ceremony began warned that anyone causing a continued disruption would be escorted out.

Yet, in the end, the ceremony went off without a hitch—or, as one guest remarked, “That was uneventful.” And before the Glee Club ended the formalities with a performance of “The Red and Blue” and the graduates in attendance made their way out of the stadium, tracked down their families, and hunted for interesting locations to take photos in their caps and gowns (with typical spots like the Ben Franklin statue and College Hall steps inaccessible), Howard acknowledged the anxiety in the air and tried to offer a respite.

“There’s a lot of fear in the world right now, not unjustifiably so,” he concluded, pointing to war, climate change, the pandemic, and the challenge of “adulting” in life after college. “But living in fear, that’s no way to live. Graduates, do not be afraid. That doesn’t mean take unhealthy risks, nor does it mean we don’t act to bring about change. Indeed, we are counting on you to repair the world. But what it does mean is: Don’t let fear keep you from being your best selves. Don’t let fear capture your attention so much that you miss the signs of hope. Don’t let fear keep you from chasing the dream or risking it all. And don’t let fear keep you from celebrating the special moments in life. I’m glad we got to celebrate you all and have our ceremony today.”

Earlier in what turned out to be a beautiful spring morning, Penn Interim President J. Larry Jameson briefly acknowledged the campus tumult too by calling it “a hard year for the world and for Penn.” But he praised the resolve of students who “arrived on campus in the thick of the pandemic” and remarked that the more than 6,500 graduates in the Class of 2024 have been “forged in the crucible of change” as they are launched into a “rapidly changing world.”

“Challenges will definitely come—but, as a group, you’ve already faced more than most,” Jameson said. “You’ve learned that navigating challenges successfully also creates opportunity for you to shape the future.

“More than ever,” he continued, “we need people who can steer through uncertainty and create opportunity from it. People who strike while the iron’s hot and heat the iron by striking it. The world needs you.”

Following the announcement of academic honors by Provost John L. Jackson Jr., and remarks by Faculty Senate chair Eric A. Feldman—and before the conferral of degrees presented by the University’s 12 school deans—oncologist and Pulitzer Prizewinning author Siddhartha Mukherjee emphasized the importance of love and forgiveness in his commencement address. He gave time for graduates and guests to “turn to someone that matters in your life” and say: “I want to tell you that I love you. I want to tell you that I forgive you. Would you tell me that you love me? Would you give me your forgiveness?”

Asking graduates to take his message seriously, he later told them that “you are entering a world where ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness’ have become meaningless, outdated platitudes, like old textbooks. They are words people have learned to laugh at. Perhaps you are laughing at them, too.

“But I dare you to use these words meaningfully again,” Mukherjee said. “Use them—but not as empty cliches. Imbue them with real meaning. Do it your way, but with the real conviction that you are returning love and forgiveness. At this moment of transition, and of rebirth—and of horrifying, numbing despair around you—dare to return love and forgiveness to an unforgiving and unforgiven world.” —DZ

Hannah Chang C’27 contributed to this report.

Honorary Degrees

Ingrid Daubechies | Honorary Doctor of Sciences
Karl Deisseroth | Honorary Doctor of Sciences
Kenneth Gamble | Honorary Doctor of Music
Leon Alexander Huff | Honorary Doctor of Music
Maya Lin | Honorary Doctor of Arts
Siddhartha Mukherjee | Honorary Doctor of Sciences

Bios of honorands are at commencement.upenn.edu

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