The threat of rain drove the Class of 2013’s convocation ceremony indoors, but as it turned out, the only thunder of the evening emanated from the Palestra floorboards as Penn President Amy Gutmann urged the incoming class: “Show us how much noise you can make!”
Once they settled down, Gutmann informed the entering freshman that they were “the most talented and diverse mix of students we have ever enrolled” at the University. But she also reminded them that they’d been chosen for more than their GPA. “Most of our 23,000 applicants had impressive transcripts. Yet most are not here,” she said.
She told her listeners that they had been chosen for having “the creativity, the drive, and the leadership potential to keep Penn’s community of scholars forever young and forever strong.”
They had “no further reason” to wonder why they’d been admitted, she said. But they still had to answer a much trickier question for themselves: Why were they here?
Gutmann offered a few tips. Good questions, she said, can “fire the imagination.” But it helps to avoid easy answers, she added, quoting H. L. Mencken’s adage that “for every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat, and wrong.” Finally, she urged them to fearlessly develop their own “talents, personality, and passions.” In Penn, Gutmann said, they will enjoy a “safe haven to make every non-life-threatening mistake from which you can grow, intellectually, socially, and ethically.”
“You are among friends,” she concluded.
Provost Vincent Price also addressed the Class of 2013, admitting to them that he is something of a freshman himself. “I too am beginning a new chapter in my life,” Price said, noting that although he’s been at Penn for a decade, this was his first convocation as Provost.
That newness can offer a chance to start fresh. “We’ve all heard that college is a chance to remake yourself,” he observed. “You know, it’s ‘Extreme Makeover: Ivy League Edition.’”
But this sense of newness only has meaning in relation to what has come before. The Palestra, he noted, was built in 1927. College Hall dates to 1873. The University’s buildings are renovated occasionally, he said, but they retain their essential character as they undergo continual change. “You are the architects of that change,” he told the incoming class.
Their new home city embodies this idea, he added. Philadelphia is “one of the nation’s original cities,” but also “the place where American colonists determined the existing system was outdated and unfair, and ripe for revision.”
Drawing on that analogy, Price encouraged his listeners to remember that they are not beginning from scratch, but “from almost two decades of learning and preparation,” already shaped by family, friends, and teachers. “You are here to renovate, not to reinvent. To become well-rounded, not remade.”
After all, he reminded them, they had been chosen because of who they are.
Penn Alumni President Lee Spelman Doty W’76 closed the ceremony by reminding the Class of 2013 that they’d joined the alumni community even before attending their first class. “The Penn bonds run deep,” she said, noting that even today, after three decades, she still has lunch once a month with her Hill House suitemates.
“Just think: tonight, the person sitting to your right or left, or the person you go to class with tomorrow, or to a party with this weekend, could well be somebody that you know forever,” she said.
“You are going to have the time of your life. Enjoy every moment.”
—Sean Whiteman LPS’11