Address of President Judith Rodin at the 247th Commencement of the University of Pennsylvania, May 19, 2003, in Philadelphia.
Welcome to the 247th Commencement of the University of Pennsylvania! Benjamin Franklin founded this University to produce graduates who would serve society by solving what seemed to be the most intractable problems of the day and by promoting scientific, social and economic progress throughout the world. Generations of Penn alumni have translated Franklins vision into achievements and careers that brought meaning to their lives, credit to Penn and lasting benefits to humanity.
To our distinguished alumni, the members of the 25th and 50th reunion classes celebrating with us today, welcome. You are worthy stewards of Franklins legacy, and I bring happy news: Youre about to get some reinforcements! Theyre hot off the stress of final exams and dissertation defenses -- and almost fully recovered from Senior Week.
Congratulations to our freshly minted alumni, the Class of 2003! Commencement itself is a day for celebrating the fulfillment of so many dreams. In that spirit, I would like to offer two very special graduation salutes: First to those who put in long hours, toiled for extra dollars and carried heavy loads all to make it to this day they have dreamed about. Graduates, join me in applauding these heroes: your parents.
And while we are in the applause mode, lets not forget those sometimes unsung heroes whose encouragement and support kept our graduate and professional students on the critical path to earn their degrees. Lets hear it for the spouses and partners of our graduate and professional students!
I also want to salute Penns dedicated staff, who help create our special learning environment, and our truly extraordinary faculty. They revved up your minds and quickened your aspirations into a passion for learning and leadership that emboldened you to explore a new world of ideas and discoveries.
And now we can begin showering applause on the Class of 2003. Graduates, I salute all you have accomplished here. And please remember that the reason you came to Penn was to learn its not who you know, but rather its whom you know.
Seriously, you have acquired a sophisticated range of analytic and creative skills. You have gained knowledge and insights. Youve made friends from all over the world. But youve also had to endure a tempest of world events as unsettling as most of us could have imagined. Yet you came through. You rallied around one another, and you prevailed. Ive observed your resilience and courage under enormous pressure. Some might say that given the current harsh realities in the world, perhaps now is not the best time for taking chances or thinking boldly and seizing opportunities to lead. Perhaps you have received well-meaning advice to trim your sails and lower your sights. But I believe strongly that now is not the time for observing a moratorium on your dreams. Your education at Penn has prepared you to meet any challenge however unexpected and to pursue any dream however ambitious. You have acquired the enviable gift of reasoning and thinking your way through a problem. You have developed the precious habit of engaging others not as subjects to enlighten or conquer but rather as partners in learning and human endeavor. And you have acquired a passionate thirst for ideas that should never be quenched. You are ready to lead.
There is a wonderful Native American proverb that captures these ideas: As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump; it is not as wide as you think. As I remembered this saying, I thought about the many Penn graduates before you who also came of age during perilous times. Like you, they approached the great chasm that stood between them and their dreams. They could have given into fear and retreated. They could have spent their lives waiting for a better time to cross. But they took the leap of faith in themselves, and they jumped.
I think of James Wilson, one of the earliest Penn graduates, who risked his life to sign Americas Declaration of Independence and later became one the leading architects of the United States Constitution. Wilsons argument that the people should elect their president and Congress won the day and strengthened Americas fledgling republic.
I think of Joseph Monroe Bennett, a 19th century merchant in Philadelphia who rebelled against the conventions of his time to become one of the countrys greatest champions for womens education. His gift to Penn helped to launch the College of Liberal Arts for Women.
I think of William Paley. In the 1920s he bought a small struggling radio network whose prospects were very poor. He transformed that network into the Columbia Broadcasting System to lead television broadcasting into the modern age.
I think of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander. As the first African-American graduate of Penns Law School and the first African American woman in the nation to earn a doctorate in economics, she faced more than her share of chasms filled with dangerous currents. Yet she jumped over them all to become one of the nations great lawyers and pioneers in civil rights.
And I think of Presper Eckert. The ink on Eckerts undergraduate Penn diploma had barely dried when he became the chief engineer for the team at Penn that would design and build the worlds first all-electrical digital computer, or ENIAC. All of us now know the revolutionary impact that ENIAC has had on computation, on communications, medicine, education practically every facet of our lives! Just think where we would be if Presper Eckert had dwelled on all the reasons not to jump across the chasm he faced as a 23-year-old engineer whose country was fighting the Second World War.
Graduates, in an unsettled world hungry for inspired leadership, your opportunities may even be greater because Penn has educated you to provide that leadership. You will be the doctors, nurses, dentists who travel to the worlds most impoverished countries to provide care to the very sick. You will be the business leaders who will stimulate the economy and foster a culture that is more innovative, inclusive and ethical. You will be the social workers who bring comfort and hope to societys most vulnerable members. You will be the artists whose paintings, photographs, novels, poems and music will move us to appreciate the miracle of creation and to lead more fully examined lives. You will be the architects and urban planners who will design livable spaces, create beauty where there is ugliness and perhaps save what remains of our precious wilderness. You will be lawyers and jurists who uphold your professions highest ideals of integrity, service and justice. You will be teachers whose dedication and passion will make our schools excellent for all our children, just as the Supreme Court envisioned when it handed down its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision exactly 49 years ago this weekend. You will be the engineers and scientists whose discoveries will enrich our quality and understanding of life. You will be great scholars whose teaching and research will expand the body of knowledge and keep our colleges and universities strong. You will be leaders in communications who help the media realize their full potential as instruments of education and citizenship. And, it is my hope you will also be political leaders whose deep understanding of the world and broad range of vision will steer governments away from perilous courses.
Leaders who bear the mark of a Penn education dont bend with prevailing winds. They dont bemoan the hand theyre dealt nor do they look back with sadness and regret to the road not taken. They do what great leaders have always done. They proceed with their march from Selma to Montgomery. They develop vaccines for polio. They dismantle apartheid and tear down the Berlin Wall. And they make extraordinary discoveries. Indeed, this year marks the jubilee of two heroic expeditions that furnish examples for you to emulate. It was 50 years ago this month that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to climb all 29,000 feet of Mount Everest right to the summit. And 50 years ago, two researchers James Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNAs molecular structure. They unleashed a revolution in biology whose impact we cannot yet begin to measure. Think about the sequencing of the human genome, which will transform the treatment of disease. Think about the use of DNA to prove the innocence of people long incarcerated on death row. We owe all of this to leadership. Hillary and Norgay were fearless explorers in search of a killer view of the world. Crick and Watson were equally intrepid explorers in search of the secret of life. Many of you burn with the desire to explore and discover some place or idea that no one else has found. And you have been given the tools to mount that expedition.
Graduates, on a planet of 6 billion people, you are among the fortunate few. The world needs you to make good use of your knowledge and skills to become instigators for a good cause. Dont be afraid of exposing yourselves to societys initial rebuke. History is filled with examples of leaders whose ideas and vision were unappreciated, misunderstood, and rejected at first. But to be truly beneficial, leadership must also be humane. Over the past several years, we have learned bracing truths about the use and abuse of power. We have seen how employee, shareholder, neighbor or nation can be deeply affected for good or ill by the decisions that leaders make in times of crisis and peril.
Graduates, you are fit and ready to make the right decisions because we have tried to provide you with the ethical compass and empathetic understanding of other peoples and other cultures. So, I appeal to you, the worlds next generation of leaders who represent the best hope for humanity, to remember that Native American proverb: As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump; it is not as wide as you think.
Members of the Class of 2003: Those of us who have watched you here with great pride look forward to seeing what you find on the other side.