Strangers Upon a New Shore

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The evening air still felt of summer, a gibbous moon glistened in a deep blue sky, and the Penn Band galloped through Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” as the Class of 2019 gathered on College Green to kick off Penn’s 276th academic year.

“You brought with you the best weather for Convocation ever, in the history of the University of Pennsylvania!” President Amy Gutmann exclaimed. But the turbulence of new beginnings lay ahead, she suggested.

In a welcoming address keyed to the “Year of Discovery,” as the 2015-16 year has been themed, Gutmann urged the incoming freshmen to “shake off what you think you know, to discover new truths about yourself and the wider world.”

“So often, the obstacle to discovery is actually the illusion of knowledge,” she said. “There will never be a better time in your lives, or a better place than Penn, to explore new ideas in [an] unsettling yet uplifting way.”

“You will be inspired,” she added, “you will be confused, you will be uneasy, and you will be delighted. That is exactly why you’re here.”

Taking up the theme, Provost Vincent Price encouraged Penn’s newcomers to “consider what a thoughtful stranger does upon arriving in a new place.”

“At Penn, you’ll find much to like,” he elaborated. “You’ll also encounter some ideas you might not. They may seem outlandish, offensive, or just plain wrong. You may be confused at some point. Embrace that confusion. A thoughtful stranger welcomes uncomfortable situations and disagreeable things. It is through this very discomfort that we learn the true value of intellectual freedom, which is not just the ability, but the absolute necessity to test our assumptions of what we know.”

Yet embracing confusion shouldn’t mean falling victim to it, Price cautioned.

“If at any time you feel estranged, disconnected, depressed, or to paraphrase Camus, like a person with no place—if you feel that you are losing your balance, please reach out: to a professor, to a staff member, to the chaplain’s office, to a friend. We all need help from time to time. We are all truly in this together.”

Gutmann offered similar counsel. “Asking for help, far from signaling weakness or failure, is the most positive sign that you appreciate something very profound,” she said: “No one makes it in life on his or her own.”

A year after Gutmann exhorted incoming freshmen to “be joiners,” Price implored members of the Class of 2019 to purposefully seek company and join groups “where everyone does not look like you.”

Chaplain Charles Howard C’00 sounded a similar note in his opening prayer, expressing hope that Penn’s newest undergraduates would enjoy freedom from the pressure to conform. “May they remember that they were not admitted to this University because they were like everyone else, but for quite the opposite reason: because they are different, because they stand out.”

“Respect others to earn their respect,” Price counseled Penn’s latest arrivals. “Value your freedom and your independence as you seek new connections. After all, who wants to be a stranger forever?” —T.P.

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