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Choosing the Best Path  by Robert Barchi

Good evening. Let me echo the President's welcome to the Class of 2007.  What an exciting time! Each of you is about to start on a demanding but exhilarating academic journey, tracing a path that may have some elements in common with those around you, but will ultimately be unique to you alone. As you begin that journey, I want to share a few thoughts with you tonight about paths and about choices.

The 19th Century British writer Thomas Carlyle said, "Of all the paths a man could strike into, there is, at any given moment, a best path...a thing which, here and now, it were of all things wisest for him to do..."

Hmmm....sounds like good advice, but how do you find your own best path through the academic brambles without getting snagged?

Choosing a path, plotting a course, implies choices. And tough choices in a new neighborhood can be daunting.

The first point I want to emphasize is that you are not alone. You are now a member of the Penn family, and we are all here to support and assist you in making those choices. Don't think of Penn as a large and impersonal place, but rather as an extended community of colleagues who will gladly share their experience with you if you reach out to them.

You have chosen to attend one of the world's truly great research universities at least in part because we can provide you with such an incredible array of opportunities, from the most esoteric to the most applied; from classical Greek literature to astrophysics; from sculpture to medicine. It's all here for you.

But with this freedom, this license to explore, comes the burden of assuming responsibility for your own choices and decisions. Perhaps the biggest difference between high school and college is that you now have to take the initiative, you will have to explore, you will have to reach out.  We are here to help you, but the decisions are ultimately yours.

OK, so you have an incredible amount of freedom here. But in this often-confusing array of academic opportunities and choices, what factors should you consider as you plot your intellectual journey?

Too often these days, the pull is toward increasing specialization and differentiation at the expense of broader intellectual exposure.

We share your aspirations to become the best investment bankers, the most creative writers, the most skilled scientists of your generation. But we also want you to be the most involved and contributing citizens in your community.

While the first goal requires depth of knowledge, the second requires breadth. While the former focuses on where you are going, the latter demands an understanding of how you arrived at where you are now. On your journey, choose a path that provides views of both.

Make sure your path also leads you through the landscape of cultural diversity; here at Penn, or even in another country during a semester abroad. Remember the message of The Quiet American. Some of the greatest conflicts in the world today are conflicts of culture; clashes of ideologies; battles among people who don't understand one another or who long ago lost interest in trying to do so. Solving these deeply complex societal problems will require leaders and citizens who are able to embrace different cultures and who have had experience with them.

Your intellectual journey must also prepare you to deal with change. John F. Kennedy observed that, "the one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable." Bruce Barton, the advertising genius, said it better with the pithy observation that "when you're through changing, you're through..." You should learn, but you must learn to be adaptable; you must learn to problem-solve; you must learn to learn.

Change is particularly rapid with technological information. Keep in mind that today's supercomputer is tomorrow's doorstop. The factual base on which we work in many of our professions is turning over at an incredible rate. Four years of college education that brings you to the cutting edge of your field in factual knowledge has only short-term value. In my other life as a physician and neuroscientist, the distance between "cutting edge" and "out of date" is measured in months, not decades. The real object of a great education is building a broad knowledge base for life-long learning.

As you satisfy your need for technical competence, you should also cultivate your intellectual curiosity; and you must develop the tools that facilitate an ongoing learning process. And you must achieve the intellectual worldview necessary to put that new knowledge into perspective both within your own field and in the broader context of society. 

Your four-year journey at Penn shouldn't focus only on the classroom. Beyond your classwork you have limitless opportunities for interaction with your peers and with other faculty members. If you want to have a poem or essay critiqued, your path can take you to Kelly Writers House just up Locust Walk. If you have a vision of tomorrow's greatest gadget, turn the other way and check out the new Weiss Tech House. Looking to join one of Penn's many theatre, choral, musical or dance groups? Head over to the performing arts space in the ARCH building. If you're eager to volunteer in any number of community projects, then Civic House is the place for you. Whatever spark of curiosity you may have, no matter how it fits into your specific academic "goals," let that curiosity lead you to new experiences, subjects and people. 

As you pursue your unique path, and follow your curiosities wherever they may lead, remember to keep a watch on your moral compass. Every day it seems there are new stories about business, church or government leaders who have failed to uphold an ethical code during critical moments.  During the next four years, you too will confront choices about ethics and academic integrity.

We expect, and indeed, demand, that you will be judicious and wise in your choices. At Penn, we value intellectual honesty and integrity as highly as we value achievement and knowledge. Don't allow yourselves to be lured by the temptation of a shortcut here and there on the road to academic excellence. Integrity does not offer any shortcuts; there are no abbreviations in the true pursuit of knowledge.

Now, all this may sound like a pretty tough and humorless journey. My kids would say that's because I'm a pretty tough and humorless guy, but what do they know...whatever! Don't get me wrong. Four years of college may not be a bowl of cherries, but it's not just the pits, either. Have fun! While you enjoy the intellectual challenge and the firey debate, don't miss the basketball games, the great concerts, the special lectures. Throw toast at a football game.... College is an experience in the broadest sense of the word. As it says on the label, full benefits requires full participation. 

A special message here, though. Have fun but be safe. Watch out for yourself and for your friends. As a teacher and a physician, I want to meet you in my classroom, not in my hospital emergency room.

Which brings me to my final point. Some of what I have said might suggest that your journey along this newly charted path will be largely a reflective or receptive one. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Don't stand apart and watch, as did the journalists in The Quiet American. Remember what Fowler's assistant Mr. Heng told him: "Sooner or later, one has to take sides. If one is to remain human."  Be engaged; be proactive, not reactive; be a participant. Not just with Penn, but with the world. 

The German poet and philosopher Johann Goethe had it right when he said:

            "Knowing is not enough; we must apply.
            Willing is not enough; we must DO."

Or, in Nike terms, "Just do it."

While I hope to see you all individually on campus during the next four years, we will meet again as a group to celebrate your graduation in 2007. The memory of these freshman orientation days may seem a distant blur to you then, but I hope to look into your faces at graduation and see the wisdom, kindness and confidence that marks the well-chosen path.

I hope, too, that each of you will be able to reflect on your time with us and know that you gave something back to your colleagues through your example.

That you explored intellectual avenues that led you to new and exotic discoveries.

That you understood that our time together was meant to lay a foundation for your future life's work and leadership.

That you did lay that foundation.

That you had a blast.

And that you did, indeed, consistently choose the best path.

Welcome to the Penn family and good luck to every one of you.

Make your families, yourselves and all of us proud. And have a great time.


  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 3, September 9, 2003