Welcome to Terra Incognita

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Freshman Convocation

Anticipation was in the air as nearly 2,500 students from the Class of 2021 filed onto College Green on August 28. It was the night before classes, and they were about to partake in a historic tradition of being welcomed into the Penn community.

“The procession, the regalia, the formality of this event is intentional,” explained Claire Lomax C’84, a Penn Trustee and representative of Penn Alumni. “[It is] designed to make us pause to recognize that by joining the Penn family, you are becoming part of a tradition of academic excellence, innovation, interdisciplinary learning, civic engagement, and inclusion.”

As if on cue, a single, orange leaf fell onto the crowd.

Fall wouldn’t officially come to Philadelphia for a few more weeks, but already the sugar maple next to Ben Franklin’s seat on the Green was starting to show its colors at the start of Penn’s 278th academic year.

It was under that tree canopy that President Amy Gutmann accepted the baton from Dean of Admissions Eric Furda C’87 and offered encouragement and guidance to the freshman class, which hails from more than 70 countries and all 50 states, plus Guam and Puerto Rico.

“When you walk through the heart of campus, you see our LOVE statue, which symbolizes what we stand for,” she said. “We stand for love, not hate; inclusion, not exclusion; compassion, not contempt; empathy, not antipathy; understanding, not ignorance; and the elevation, not the degradation, of the human mind and spirit.”

Pointing out Locust Walk, she informed those new to Philadelphia that it was once a city street. Although the cars are long gone, this stone “spine” remains a vital thoroughfare through the heart of campus. “It is a superhighway for ideas, many of which will be unfamiliar to you,” Gutmann warned. “They will be creative, uplifting, and challenging. You will have to overcome the discomfort of stepping out into new territory. Map makers of old feared it. They labeled it terra incognita—the land unknown.

“Terra incognita takes on a different meaning at Penn—here, we’re talking minds, not maps. When introduced to strange new ideas, human beings tend to become fearful. We draw dragons at the edge of what is known. That’s because new ideas force us from our comfort zones, to discover more.”

Gutmann urged students to venture boldly into the unknown right then and there. “I want everybody to stand, look around, and find somebody you haven’t met yet. Say hi, introduce yourself, say where you’re from, then take out your phones and lean in for a selfie. No exceptions, not even me!”

The students did just that, some standing on their chairs to get the perfect shot. After a few minutes of bright smiles and handshakes, Gutmann announced, “Welcome to Penn, the only Ivy League university with built-in, mandatory selfie breaks!”

But the exercise was more than just a chance for students to stretch their legs. “You now have the perfect memento of the energy that comes from stepping into the unknown,” Gutmann explained.

Penn’s new provost, Wendell Pritchett [“Gazetteer,” Jul|Aug 2017], echoed Gutmann’s recommendations of exploration and self-discovery, and he urged students to reach out and ask for help, if needed. “Like you, I’m new. Not new to Penn but in a new role, as you are. Also like you, this is my first Convocation, as provost.” With a grin, he added, “Hopefully, unlike you, it won’t be my last.”

For one out of every eight students in the Class of 2021, the whole college experience is new for their families. Eighteen percent are the children or grandchildren of Penn alumni.

Pritchett advised students to stay the course during difficult times by relying on each other. “The ground is shifting—hourly, it seems sometimes. When the ground does shift, trust yourself. You’ve gotten this far already. But don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s what we’re here for. Ask anyone in my office: I’m always yelling for help.”

Pritchett explained that diverse interactions with a wide range of people will help students navigate life both on and off campus, creating “a future of doorways and windows, not mirrors.”

“You and I may be at the start of our Penn education, but everyone here is still learning,” he said.

“Your next four years will be filled with the acquisition of knowledge: with your discovery of the shape of the world and your place in it,” he predicted. “Here, we are all discoverers, and new worlds await. That is also part of your education and mine. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get started.” —NP

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