Commencement Address 2013

May 13, 2013

By Amy Gutmann

A Rewarding Lifetime of Service

Chairman Cohen, Trustees, Vice President Biden, and honored guests, families, friends and alumni: welcome to the 257th commencement of the University of Pennsylvania!

To the members of the amazing Class of 2013: This morning when you awoke, I know you thought, as I did, "This is it! This is the day… I get to wear regalia!" And may I say you look fabulous!

Perhaps we should consider making robes a regular part of our wardrobe... Or maybe not.

Regardless of whether you ever wear robes again, they connect you this morning with generations of Penn graduates who came before.

At Penn's seventh commencement, two hundred and fifty years ago, Benjamin Franklin, our founder, was seated among the dignitaries. It was the only Penn commencement that Franklin would ever attend. No doubt he felt the same thrill of hope for the future that—looking out at our graduates—you feel, Mr. Vice President.

Our surroundings serve to remind us of the deep connection of this University to public service, and of the essential connection of public service to hope for our future. In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came here, to Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania, to accept his party's nomination to run for a second term.

Where others sensed decline and despair, FDR saw hope—but only if every citizen stood forth in service to others. "To some generations much is given…" he famously said. "Of other generations much is expected. This generation… has a rendezvous with destiny."

Graduates, of your generation of Penn graduates much has been given… and much is also expected. Your rendezvous with destiny—and nothing less than the hope of our society and much of the world—depends, above all else, upon your using your Penn education to lead a rewarding life of service.

When Ben Franklin was asked by a friend how could he repay the kindnesses Franklin had bestowed upon him, Franklin advised: "Let good offices [meaning good deeds] go round, for Mankind are all of a family." There is a word for this virtuous circle of service: citizenship. Good citizens do not just vote. Good citizens do not just campaign for their favorite candidates—important though voting and campaigning are, as our Vice President surely can attest!

Good citizenship encompasses every facet of life.  It is an expansive engagement with others, and it reflects fundamentally on who we are as people.

You, Members of the Class of 2013, have already shown yourselves to be great citizens of Penn and of the Family of Humankind. Working at our United Community Clinic, caring for members of our Philadelphia community who would otherwise go without, are hundreds of students from our Schools of Nursing, Dental Medicine, Arts and Sciences, Social Policy and Practice, and the Perelman School of Medicine.

Every year, our Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships engages thousands of Penn students in service-based coursework—more than 60 courses annually—addressing everything from education and health care, to unemployment and economic well-being in West Philadelphia. You have demonstrated that the best way to combine learning well and living well is by serving others.

Yet you can't help but wonder—with some anxiety—what lies ahead?  How do you combine a great career with good work?

In my own life, the greatest satisfactions have never been the quickest wins. As a newly-minted PhD, I earned an average starting academic salary, about $200 a week. This was more than double the peak earnings of what my hero—my father—ever earned before he died, when I was in high school. Unlike my father, I had many more lucrative options for a career. Had I taken any of those roads more traveled, I would never be here and never had such a rewarding career.

The contributions of a Penn education can never be rightly measured by your first paycheck or even your lifetime income. At the end of the day, it won't be what you take but what you give that matters. A previous Penn commencement speaker, Denzel Washington, said it best: of every funeral procession you have ever seen, how many times has the hearse been pulling a U-Haul?

There are so many ways everyone can serve, and it's never too soon to start.

Early in high school, my first job was washing dishes at a sleep-away summer camp for disadvantaged children. I later became a counselor at this camp, and still count spending time with those children as among the most satisfying summers of my life.

Like almost all of my campers, 10-year old Dana's family was on assistance. Her single mom worked 3 jobs housecleaning, but lived below the poverty line. Dana seemed unrelentingly sad, and often acted out, except when she had my attention. She told me she felt sad and guilty that her mom couldn't come to camp with her because her mom was the one who worked so hard to support Dana's entire family. One of my goals that summer became to dispel Dana's guilt.

Now, dispelling guilt does not come naturally to anyone who—like me—has been raised well by a Jewish mother and father. But being happy and guilty—now that might be achievable. And I was also taught that to save one person is to save the world.

So I set out to prove to Dana that if she worked really hard to become the camp leader in her age group—as she did—that her mother would be so proud. After camp ended, Dana's mother wrote me to say that Dana came home much happier, and better behaved.

In college, I was a work-study student and substitute teacher at an inner-city high school. I'll never forget my first day as a substitute teacher. A veteran teacher entered my homeroom and, in front of all my students, sternly shouted at me: "take your seat with all the other students." That unforgettable moment taught me an invaluable lesson in overcoming humiliation.

My story is far from unique. Everyone we are honoring today will tell you that their beginnings were humble, and that their greatest satisfactions have come from serving others.

To today's Penn graduates, I say: Share this citizenship of service. You have been successful at Penn precisely because you've been such strong citizens of our university community.

Now destiny awaits your success as citizens of your society and the world. Your efforts will bring unrivalled and often unexpected rewards for the good deeds you do.

Today is your celebratory day. I know you will go forth proud not only in your lifelong advantages but also—and far more importantly—avid in your obligations to serve as citizens. Certainly, we will always be proud of how your Penn education taught you to relish the joys of great citizenship. And you can be sure that I will be avid in my admiration of you.

But—as I am about to prove to you—I am far from alone in my admiration. So, I ask that we all stand and join together now—proud moms and dads, spouses and partners, grandmas and grandpas, sisters and brothers, family and friends, honored guests, my fellow trustees and faculty—in unison with our graduates—in showing them and the world right now just how proud, boisterously proud, we are of their Penn citizenship!

Thank you!

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Video of this address available here.