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Below, and on the following pages, are the Convocation addresses given by President Rodin and Provost  Barchi to the Class of 2007 on College Green last Tuesday evening, September 2, 2003.


Becoming an Action Learner  by Judith Rodin

Deans, Faculty, University Officers, Trustees:

Welcome to members of the Class of 2007 and to our new students who have transferred from other universities.

Convocation is a special, almost magical moment. It marks your official passage into a community of scholars unlike any other in the world.

For us, Convocation is opening night of a new academic season. We've looked forward to your arrival all summer, and we couldn't be more delighted or energized to greet you--not only as our newest students, but as active partners and players in this great and wonderful enterprise known as Penn.

We're counting on you to have a huge impact on our teaching and research, and perhaps, help us save the world.  Not that you should feel any pressure. But, you are an amazing group of young women and men who come from all over the country and all over the world.

Seated among you this evening are scientists and inventors with patents pending, including a student who designed what might prove to be a great device for those of you who might have trouble waking up before the crack of noon: a mechanism that elevates the upper half of the bed when the alarm clock goes off.

We have a dancer who has performed with the American Ballet Theatre, a Grammy Award-winning singer, and more than a few published playwrights and authors.

We have a champion female weightlifter from Florida who has mastered the Japanese language and Japanese culinary arts.

We are especially fortunate to welcome our international students who bring so much to Penn. One example is an Iraqi woman who, like so many others, found herself trapped in Baghdad as bullets flew and bombs fell.

Facing the possibility each day of losing her family, friends, and her life, this young woman began to record her observations and impressions in a diary. She hoped the diary would find its way into publication, with or without her, to give the world an uncensored, unmediated perspective on the war that did not conform to any ideological agenda.

Her story received national media coverage and fortunately has a happy ending. This young woman's diary will be published next month. Best of all, she has made it through the war OK. She's free, now, to pursue her dream of studying abroad as a pre-med major. And we could not be happier that she has chosen to come to Penn.

Now, it is natural to feel awed and maybe even a little intimidated by any of these accomplished men and women. You may not have met anyone like them. But remember: they have not met anyone like you, either. Cultivate that. Let others discover you and learn from you as you learn from them.

Each of you is exceptional in some way, or you would not be here. We know you have what it takes to begin translating your talents, passions, and dreams into a life filled with personal meaning, leadership, and the pursuit of knowledge.

Each of you will spend your time here figuratively, at least, writing the first drafts of your own stories, based on experiences that will surely change your lives, and more than likely, enrich the community and world in ways you cannot possibly foresee tonight.

You've come to an incredibly stimulating University that will stand you in good stead on your journey. We're a community that thrives on academic rigor.

Yet, we also believe that work is only one part of the good, full, and well-rounded life that we all seek.  Whether we're cheering a Penn victory over Princeton--which, happily, happens regularly--whether we're playing on a team,  or just working out, we embrace athletics to strengthen our bodies and spirits. 

At the same time, we immerse ourselves in arts and culture to feed our souls. In classrooms, studios, theaters, galleries and museums, arts and culture are embedded in the life of the University.

We're deeply engaged with our neighbors in the community, whom I hope you will get to know, and with the great, cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia, which I urge you to explore.

And when it comes to academics, we are fiercely dedicated to our mission, first conceived by our founder Benjamin Franklin, to join theory and practice in service to humanity.

Throughout the University you will find a healthy respect for the past and a passion for ideas and learning for their own sake.

But to borrow from the words of 20th century thinker Mordecai Kaplan, at Penn, the past has a vote, not a veto. We're not afraid to challenge the status quo. Nor do we shrink from our responsibility to lead society into the future.

Many of you are familiar with Extreme Sports like wakeboarding, speed climbing, and vertical skateboarding, and like me, perhaps a few of you dream of competing in an X Games Olympiad.

In fact, the other evening, I executed a flawless whirlybird on my wakeboard.

Then I woke up.

While we discourage and actually prohibit skateboarding on campus, we at Penn are very much into extreme academics and action learning. Faculty and students are constantly challenging conventional thinking --and pushing each other higher and higher. And we're always putting our learning and ourselves to the test wherever there is a chance to save lives, promote justice, and lead humanity toward a more prosperous and more peaceful future.

Now it's your turn to become an action learner at Penn.

Do you have some ideas for upgrading North America's power grids? Great.  Go for it.

Think you can come up with a formula to bring peace to the Middle East?  Start working on it.

Feel you can outdo F. Scott Fitzgerald and write a novel that records the struggles, joys, and aspirations of your generation? Do it.

Eager to launch a business?   Move on it.

Passionate about bringing quality health care and cleaner drinking water to distressed populations?  Get going.

Dreaming of making a movie? Start shooting.

That's what 11 Digital Media Design students from Penn did last year--right after they learned about a national Ninja Film Contest only 16 days before the submissions were due.

Now, these students had neither the luxury of time nor the benefit of fluency in the ways of Ninja. But they did have a wealth of interdisciplinary learning experiences on which to draw for creative inspiration and practical solutions. They had the ability to adapt quickly to a new challenge. They had an opportunity to show their work to a famous action film director and producer and perhaps win the $15,000 grand prize. And they had one another.

Without missing a beat, these remarkable students wrote the script, found a film location, rented Ninja costumes, swords, and weapons,  shot the film in two feet of snow, and worked their digital design magic to produce a short film about battle between grave robbers and Ninja that takes place on a snowy Philadelphia graveyard.

And, oh yes. The film won the contest and the 15 grand. Not bad for a little more than two weeks work.

And if you have patience, perseverance, and the desire to expand knowledge, nothing will stop you from participating in the extreme academic world of research at Penn.

Take the example of recent Penn grad Ana Maria Gomez Lopez. Ana Maria took advantage of our Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships to follow a hunch that would lead her to begin earning a graduate degree in anthropology while she was an undergrad.  

She spent several summers living in a remote section of Colombia among the indigenous Nasa people, who have been tragically caught in the crossfire among government security forces, left-wing guerillas, and right-wing paramilitary forces. Ana Maria accompanied the Nasa as they attempted to recover and identify the remains of loved ones massacred and buried in mass graves.

Because of ongoing tensions between government officials and the Nasa, Ana Maria's work put her frequently in harm's way. But she persevered to forge an entirely new field of inquiry in forensic anthropology --one that could profoundly change the relationship between individual national governments and more than 350 million indigenous peoples throughout the world.

Now, like Ana Maria, when you write your story, you should know that you'll never write alone. Collegiality and collaboration are critical to life at Penn. You will engage your peers and professors as colleagues, as partners in learning.

By the same token, you can count on your professors and classmates to challenge your views and proposals aggressively and vigorously. In fact, you should want that to happen, because that is how we all learn.

These are very different kinds of relationships than what most of you are accustomed to. Think of some of the recurring questions you might have asked your teachers in high school:

"What is going to be on the test? "

 "What will I need to do or know to get an A on this paper?"

 "Is there any way I can get you to change my B+ to an A?"

You might feel inclined to ask the same questions at Penn.

But they are the wrong questions. Treating your professors only as grade dispensers will lessen your experience here.

Engage our faculty as collaborators who will help you create the table of contents and bibliographies of the great life stories you will be crafting. It doesn't matter what school you're in, where you come from, whose god you worship, or which candidate you will vote for in the next presidential election. If you're itching to work with our faculty to stretch your intellectual horizons, our faculty will give you many opportunities to scratch and serve.

In one of our cancer research labs run by Dr. Barbara Weber, for example, you'll find medical investigators, undergraduates and grad students all working side by side, on the leading edge of science to find effective treatments for breast and ovarian cancer. In fact, it was a Wharton undergrad who designed the lab's computer program and algorithms to analyze cancerous tissues.

You're so caught up in the close camaraderie among the students and faculty and in the amazing work they're doing, that you almost forget how heterogeneous this group is.  Just like our Ninja filmmakers, these are students and faculty of many cultures and colors who are working together toward a common goal, and writing a great story. 

Indeed, if you want to give your story life, purpose, an authentic sense of place, and a fabulous cast of characters, draw upon Penn's rich diversity, which reflects the world you will be expected to lead.

In the latest edition of Atlantic Monthly magazine, columnist David Brooks ends his analysis of diversity in America by posing these questions. "Look around at your daily life," he writes.  "Are you really in touch with the broad diversity of American life? Do you care?"

Members of the Class of 2007, you should care. To identify with people of similar backgrounds, interests, and values is natural and healthy.  College is a time to find out who you are, and Penn will furnish many opportunities and resources for you to explore and celebrate your heritage.

But to interact only with those with whom you feel you have much in common is to waste the opportunity that Penn affords you.

Oliver Chu grasped this wisdom earlier than most. Oliver was en route to graduate last spring with dual degrees in Penn Nursing and Wharton when he was called to serve with his Pennsylvania National Guard unit in peacekeeping operations in war-torn Bosnia.

He told the Daily Pennsylvanian, "It was eye-opening for the Bosnians to see people of different races and ethnicities in our military working together for a common good."

Students, imagine how mind-opening it is to study with, play with, and yes, argue with those with whom you might not be naturally inclined to interact.

We want you to be safe, but we prefer that you not get too comfortable. You'll learn much more by mixing it up with your peers across all boundaries.

Remember: You're not in an ivory tower. You're part of the real world that you soon will be called on to lead. Penn gives you the best chance you'll ever have--and a much better chance than my generation had--to know this world in its many racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural dimensions. Seize it while you are here.

Members of the class of 2007: I can only imagine the incredible stories that each of you will write over the next four years.

Not later.

Not after 2007.

But starting now, here tonight.

As I eagerly await your first drafts, I call to mind a poet's wise advice:

"If you try the best you can,
The best you can is good enough."

Many years from now, you may not recall much of what was said here this evening. But at least you will be able to tell your grandchildren that on your first night as Penn students,

"The president of the University of Pennsylvania quoted Radiohead."

Welcome to Penn.


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