Summons to an Academic Adventure

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The Class of 2008 begins its adventure—by heading for dessert.

Around Campus | “I anticipate quite an adventure for all of us,” said Dr. Amy Gutmann, Penn’s new president. “Even,” she added dryly, “if nothing can surpass the drama of New Student Orientation.”

Behind Gutmann stood the floodlit College Hall. Before her sat the incoming Class of 2008, some 2,400 strong, the flags of the 12 College Houses interspersed among them. That promise of future adventure, mixed with down-to-earth advice, pervaded the Opening Convocation, which took place on College Green in near-perfect weather on the evening of September 7. 

“This Convocation is special,” said Gutmann, “because you and I are beginning our life at Penn together. And I know we’re a perfect fit for one another.”

She got herself on the students’ good side pretty quickly. Singling out the transfer students, Gutmann noted that she and they had “something in common,” and explained: “I recently transferred from Princeton University, where I spent a glorious 28 years.” A chorus of muffled boos rose from the chairs. “But like you,” she added quickly, “I consider the move to Penn to be a major upgrade!” This time a loud cheer erupted.

Gutmann assured the new students that they were both uniquely qualified and needed at Penn.

“We want you here because we see in you—each one of you—convincing evidence of extraordinary, independent minds, which our divided world desperately needs now more than ever before,” she said. “And tonight, we officially punch your ticket to join Penn’s extraordinary community of scholars.”

And while they’re here, Gutmann suggested, they should get ready to take some risks.

“Force yourselves out of your normal comfort zones,” she said. “Take that course in anthropology or art, physics or finance. It won’t be the end of the world if you don’t get an A or even a B minus.

“Debate your classmates vigorously and respectfully on issues for which you hold strong opinions,” she added. “By listening and responding to one another, you’ll do your part to rescue public discourse from its shameful resemblance to professional wrestling.”

Interim Provost Peter Conn, the Andrea Mitchell Professor of English, began his remarks by instructing the students to turn to those around them and “say ‘Hello.’” Suggesting that “there’s a good chance that the people you just greeted didn’t look very much like you,” Conn then told them that they “comprise the latest chapter in this University’s ongoing, idealistic experiment in international, multicultural living.” 

Penn, he added, “is not only your new school; it is your new home, your new family. It is the place in which you will continue to define yourself, partly through discovery and partly through invention, urged on by your intellectual curiosity and your sense of adventure.” In four years, he noted, “you will be a much different person than you are today because of the influence of this extraordinary place.”

And then the band played “The Red and Blue,” and the students sang along for the first time. Then they slowly filed out into the late-summer evening to nosh on desserts with President Gutmann and their new peers. —S.H.

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