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President Judith Rodin's Baccalaureate Address, May 16, 2004

Building Diverse Communities

Judith Rodin

Welcome families, friends, honored guests, and Graduates of the Class of 2004: 

I love all our Penn traditions, ceremonies, and rituals. 

But the two I cherish most are Convocation, where I met and addressed you four years ago on your first official day as Penn students, and Baccalaureate, where we assemble today as one community of different faiths on the eve of your graduation to reflect upon the impact that your Penn education--both inside and outside the classroom--has had on your minds and spirits.

As I think about what lies ahead for you, I'm reminded of a story about two construction workers named Sam and Bill who have lunch together every day. One day as always they're sitting down to lunch and they both open their lunch boxes and Bill looks inside his and says "Oh baloney, I don't like baloney." Sam opens his, and finds chicken which he loves and enjoys his lunch. They come to the next day and they sit down as always having their lunch together. Bill opens his lunch box and looks in it and says "I can't believe baloney again, I hate baloney." Sam opens his and finds turkey, which he loves and enjoys his lunch and they both go back to work together.  Well now it's the third day and they sit down and they open their lunch boxes. Bill opens his lunch box and looks in and says, "Baloney, I have baloney again!" Sam looks in his, has a nice roast beef sandwich and enjoys it. As they're leaving to return to work, Sam asks Bill, "Why don't you tell your wife to stop packing baloney sandwiches for lunch?" Bill looks at him and replies, "But I don't have a wife."

Which reminds us that most of the baloney in our lives we put there ourselves.

So as you leave here and think about crafting your future, how will you make sure your lives are important, fulfilling, and baloney-free?

The challenges are vexing.

As you join the leadership ranks of your chosen professions and callings and begin to enjoy the blessings of the education you have been privileged to receive, one sixth of the world's population--that's one billion people--must make do on less than one dollar a day. Hundreds of millions of them have no drinkable water, no access to medical care, and no educational opportunities that might help them escape the fate of living lives that are nasty, brutal, and short.

Even in this, the most prosperous nation on earth, we have scores of cities in serious distress, and millions of families living in poverty.

And, overshadowing and perhaps connected to it all: The emergence of organized killers who exploit religious hatreds and exacerbate what Samuel Huntington has famously described as "the clash of civilizations." As victims of terrorism die around the globe, we have seen that a sea of troubles can crash upon any shore in what has become a shrunken world.

Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, argues persuasively that if we wish to deepen human understanding and prevent more catastrophes, we must respect and make space for what he calls "the dignity of difference."

 "Pluralism," he writes, "is a form of hope, because it is founded in the understanding that precisely because we are different, each of us has something unique to contribute to the shared project of which we are a part.

In the short term, our desires and needs may clash; but the very realization that difference is a source of blessing leads us to seek mediation, conflict resolution, conciliation, and peace."

Graduates, implicit in today's interfaith ceremony is the recognition that while no single religion can solve the world's problems or furnish the one true path to enlightenment and happiness, dialogue and collaboration among people of different religions can broaden our understanding of others and deepen our appreciation of our own faiths and traditions.

Indeed, there is nothing inherently exclusionary about most of the world's religions.

For example, the divine commandment to love the stranger appears in the Torah 36 times.

The Koran uses the phrase "Banu Adam," or "descendents of Adam," to remind Muslims of their obligation to respect the honor and dignity of all human beings.

A message of unconditional love and forgiveness--even of one's enemies--lies at the heart of Christianity.

In Hinduism, God exists in all things, and human beings in their essence are one with God, which compels us to seek something good in everyone.

So, I ask each of you: Are you prepared to build a better world by seeking and embracing your interconnectedness to one another?

I already know the answer is yes. Because all of you--in some way--all of you have been affirming your identities and building diverse communities around shared goals from virtually the moment you left the Convention Center after Convocation four years ago.

You took the initiative to make a difference and have a major impact--on the quality of your own education, on the quality of academic and extracurricular life at Penn, and on the quality of lives of people near and far.

I observed how a diverse group of extraordinary freshmen Nursing students founded Minorities in Nursing to improve health care for diverse populations.

I've observed how you forged connections across schools such as two Engineering seniors who won this year's senior design competition for developing a Sleep Apnea Detection System using Neural Networks --that could help millions of people who suffer from apnea.

I've observed how you built intercultural bridges and worked hard to open doors of opportunity to others.

An outstanding student leader from the College writes: "My main concern coming to Penn was seeing the word Œdiversity' and trying to understand how an open-minded Chicano, male, Catholic, heterosexual from California fit in. But I wanted to explore for myself and help others see what is underneath the surface." And he did, by developing programs that encouraged more dialogue on diversity among all our students, and by being a forceful advocate for expanding the breadth of our academic programs in ethnic, gender, and religious studies.

I've observed how you built bridges to people thousands of miles away--like a Wharton senior who traveled to India last summer to work with women and children in rural villages to help them earn an independent living and advance in their society.

Whatever you did to build bridges--whether you helped develop a community health center at a local middle school in Philadelphia, or worked to improve understanding across our differences on campus, you served as envoys from a more just and humane future. Now the time has come for you to shape that future.

You are an amazing group of men and women. 

To echo Nietzcsche's beautiful words from Thus Spake Zarathustra,

I urge you  "not to reject the hero in your souls.

Keep holy your highest hopes."

Together, you can prevent a wasteful and destructive clash of religions, of races, cultures and civilizations.

You can even, as our faith traditions teach us, forge bonds of kinship with strangers.

When you start imagining what you can accomplish with others after you think you have exhausted the range of everything and anything in your power, the seeds of the world in which we all wish to live are born.

To borrow from Bob Dylan, may you keep "busy being born."

Godspeed to all of you.



  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 34, May 25, 2004