Commencement Address 2014

May 19, 2014

Composing the Soundtrack of Your Life

By Amy Gutmann

Welcome everyone, to the 258th Commencement of the University of Pennsylvania!

Members of the Class of 2014:  Today, you become our newest Penn alumni. Bravo!

We celebrate your achievement with pomp and ceremony, with speeches and salutations, and of course, with music. Every Penn Commencement ever held has included music – and for good reason.

Music marks the defining moments of our lives. We connect certain songs to our happiest memories, to our heartbreaks, and to the history of our time. Song by song, we construct a soundtrack to our lives.

Consider, for instance, how you felt on move-in day your freshman year -- Music plays: Ride of the Valkyries

Or those days when you were juggling classes and exams and OCR -- Music plays: Night on Bald Mountain

Or your crushing disappointment when classes were cancelled due to snow -- Music plays: Hallelujah!

But the soundtrack of our life is not something that simply happens to us. Each of us also composes it -- by the choices we make, the places we go, and the people we meet. It is the history of our memorable experiences made audible.

The most memorable moments of the soundtrack of my life revolve around three themes: freedom, community, and courage.

Freedom: I was a teenager during the great human rights movements of the 1960s. Martin Luther King led a march on Washington and proclaimed a mighty dream. Gloria Steinem inspired a new wave of feminism. The gay community stood mup to police raids in the Stonewall Riots. Everywhere, including in my own school and small town, I could hear the once voiceless taking up the call for that first and foremost ingredient of human freedom… Music plays: Respect

Only when we engage one another with respect can we all be free. Respect enables the overcoming of prejudices, and the opening of our minds to new, life-affirming possibilities. When respect takes root, freedom flowers.

When I joined the non-violent civil rights movement, there were those who thought we could change the world in one fell swoop. Music plays: Revolution

But the true revolutionaries I've met haven't been armed with guns or bombs. They have armed themselves with irresistible ideas: ideas that erode prejudice through their power.

No individual in our lifetime demonstrated this power more successfully than Nelson Mandela. When he passed away late last year, we said goodbye to one of the greatest champions of freedom the world has ever known.

I had the life-changing honor of meeting him, and I shall always cherish his supreme song of freedom: "To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

This great man suffered imprisonment and torment for 27 years, led a tough liberation struggle against often ruthless oppressors, yet taught us that freedom comes by the ways we engage one another with respect.

As Penn graduates, you exemplify the ethos of talent coupled with drive and determination. It's what you've got—"GRIT"—that's the essential ingredient in individual success. But we "gritty" individuals must never forget that we are truly successful and free only together.

Community: A great community, indeed a beloved community, has been key to success in my life, as it will be in yours.

It's the Penn community: the commitment of great faculty who bring out the best in their students; it's the commitment of passionate students who make the most of their Penn education and create friendships that last a lifetime;  it's the commitment of loving Penn parents and families;  it's the commitment of dedicated Penn staff; and it's the commitment of generations of accomplished alumni who have made the Penn community what it is today.

It's the Penn community that has made my lifelong ideal of increasing access to the best education not merely a vision, but a reality. It's the Penn community that also has been there and lifted me when I've been down.

In my down times—and make no mistake, we all have our down times—it was the Penn community that taught me how important it is not just to give to others, but also to accept support from others. It's not enough just to "lean in." We also need to learn, and help our friends, to do something else… Music plays: Lean on Me

Today, I want to express my appreciation to this Class for the way you have bonded as a beloved community, the way you have both learned from and leaned on one another. You've grown with people from all walks of life and every part of the globe. Together you've learned so many things -- Music plays: Gangnam Style

Not everything we learn at Penn is edifying.

Being Penn graduates, you know this critically important insight. To succeed at the truly big things—like freedom and community—it takes something extra. It takes what great liberators like Nelson Mandela taught us… Music plays: Brave

Courage:  Courage can mean facing down historic oppression and stepping into the line of fire. But no less life-changing are the small braveries, the everyday braveries: the courage of coming out, of being your honest self, of speaking your mind with integrity, all the more so in those moments when others stay silent.

Our soundtracks need a song that reminds us just how exhilarating it feels to stand up for who we really are… Music plays: Firework

Graduates, there is nothing greater than the joy of composing the soundtrack of our lives, listening to it, and sharing it with others.

Composed with freedom and courage, and shared throughout our beloved community, the soundtracks of our lives join us together in a spirit that words—without the wonders of music—cannot possibly capture.

So, accompanied by the wonderful music of our own Penn graduate and honored Commencement speaker John Legend, I ask everybody here today to do one more thing… Music plays: All of Me

I ask everybody to stand together—moms and dads, spouses and partners, grandmas and grandpas, sisters and brothers, family and friends, our honored guests, my fellow trustees and faculty. Please stand with me and give your all in showing just how proud we are of our 2014 Penn graduates!

Thank you.