Think Uniquely, Stand United

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Upholding the twin pillars of a strong pluralism.


Of the many privileges that come with my job, the honor of addressing our graduates and their families at Commencement each year ranks as one of the most rewarding. It’s always an inspiring day: Spirits are high; we recognize enormously accomplished honorary degree recipients for their achievements; family members and guests dressed in their finest come bearing flowers and hugs and hearts filled with pride; even the weather—no sure thing in springtime in Philadelphia—typically cooperates. It is, in short, a magical day, full of pomp, panoply, and enormous promise. Which means, of course, I feel a tremendous sense of duty to use my few minutes at the lectern to say something timely, appropriate, and, most of all, worthwhile.

That obligation seemed particularly acute this past May, when I bid farewell to the amazing Class of 2018. Since that wonderful day, several people have suggested that my message should be shared more broadly with all our Penn family around the world. So I would like to take this opportunity to share with you what I told the graduating Class of 2018. My message was this:

Too many people in this world would have us stand apart from one another based on our differences. And too many others, for the sake of sameness, would have us deny our individuality.

In fact, what makes us unique and what unites us are not starkly opposed. Uniqueness and unity are the twin pillars of a strong pluralism. We thrive when we combine unity of shared values with our unique perspectives on life. It has never been more important that we think uniquely while we stand united.

This message is driven home daily by stories from around the world and stories right here at Penn. One Penn story began in Sudan, where civil war raged, killing millions. People lost everything. The chance to become educated came only to the very lucky few.

One of them was Dau Jok, proud 2014 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences. Dau’s father was killed in the Sudanese civil war. His mother fled with his family to Des Moines, Iowa.

Dau’s unique perspective was forged by profound loss and the struggles of creating a new life in an alien country. His distinctive experiences may seem defined by vast differences. But exactly the opposite is true. This spring, Dau was part of our annual Silfen Forum, joining leaders like former Vice President Joe Biden and former Governor Jeb Bush to discuss refugees and immigration. It was Dau who cut right to the heart of the matter when he asked his fellow Penn students and alums: Are you speaking the values that you and I share?

Dau’s message was clear: We all must speak the values we share. So often, we are told that our differences divide us. But it is our unique life stories, brought together and joined as a whole, that constitute our common strength. We must speak out and say to the world that unique in our experiences, we are united in our values. And we must communicate those values at every opportunity. From South Sudan, to snowy Iowa, to Franklin Field, we need to speak the values we share.

What are these values? We cherish Liberty not Chains, Opportunity without Limit, Love not Hate, and Learning without End. And so, we stand united against hatred and cruelty, though our paths differ. Each of us has our own creative views on how best to advance liberty and opportunity, love and learning.

Uniqueness and unity are not opposed, as I learned early in my own life.

As many of you know, I was the first in my family to graduate college. When I began the journey from my home in rural New York to an Ivy League campus, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. But I wanted to fit in. I saved up every penny of my summer job money to buy a suitcase full of new formal clothes. Belongings in hand, I headed off to an unfamiliar new world.

My very first day, a classmate who would become a good friend took one look at the clothes I’d packed, and she said to me—in no uncertain terms—“These all have to go!” I traded them in for two pairs of Levi’s and a couple of T-shirts.

It was a rocky start. As a scholarship student, I had a work-study job in the early mornings before class. All my new friends had a habit of staying up late. Very late. So, of course, I was determined to keep up by staying up late as well. At the time, I thought being perpetually sleep deprived was a condition unique to me.

Here’s the takeaway: When I first arrived, I focused on how different I felt—as a first-generation, low-income student—and how much I wanted to fit in. Then, one day, I tried a different approach. Arriving back on campus from spring break, which I spent at home with my wonderful widowed mom, I was carrying the very same suitcase. Again, it was full—not of who I thought I should be, but of who I actually was.

It was jam packed with home-cooking lovingly prepared: Mama Bea’s light-as-air cheese blintzes, secret recipe stuffed cabbage, corned beef nice and lean, and jumbo chocolate chip cookies that could make you cry—for joy!

My friends had never tasted anything quite like it. Nor had I ever tasted anything like their life experiences. We shared something over that meal and many more to come that went far beyond my mom’s blintzes. We shared our own unique recipes for life. What I came to understand was that our differences are in fact our strengths. Strengths that, in turn, advance what you and I and all of Penn are trying to achieve, together.

The Great Seal of the United States reads, E Pluribus Unum: From Many, One. Graduates, during your time here, you have come to know the Red and Blue version we hold so dear. E Pennibus Unum: From Many Penn People, One Penn Family. From all 50 states in the Union and more than a hundred countries, from all walks of life, the Penn family lives and learns, engages and enjoys one another.

You have grown together in this constantly illuminating swirl of uniqueness, as you have stood together—inspiringly—for the values we all share.

You exemplify what E Pennibus Unum truly means—what the Penn family really stands for: Liberty not Chains, Opportunity without Limit, Love not Hate, and Learning without End.

As you go forth today, your great task, the life’s project we all share, is to take this well-learned lesson—think uniquely, stand united—out into our society and our world. Speak the values we share. Speak them—when needed, sing them from the rooftops—with the unique voice that only you possess.

And now, I ask everybody to stand together. Proud families and friends, University leaders and faculty, stand with me as one, and show our profound pride in this unique and united Class of 2018.

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    1 Response

    1. Beverly Bradway

      I had the pleasure of watching President Gutmann deliver the graduation speech in May, 2018, and feel equally moved reading it again today. Brilliant. Profound. Empowering.

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