Traveling Unconventional Paths

September 2, 2008 - Convocation Speech
by Penn President Dr. Amy Gutmann

My warmest welcome to the great Class of 2012!

I extend equally warm greetings to our transfers from other colleges and universities. Transfers? Smart move!

It also gives me enormous pleasure to welcome a Pennsylvanian whose name adorns one of our great College Houses, Riepe House – the Chairman of Penn’s Board, Jim Riepe.

All of you join the most talented and diverse mix of students we have ever enrolled. Seated among you are classmates from Puerto Rico … the U.S. Virgin Islands … and all 50 of the United States --- from the Golden State of California … to the Lone Star State of Texas … to the Keystone State of Pennsylvania!

Among you are also 331 classmates from 62 countries, from Albania and Australia … the Bahamas and Bahrein … to Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

If you did not graduate first in your class or ace every important exam, and therefore worry that we might have blundered into admitting you to Penn, I offer three words of advice: Get over it! We turned away 55% of the Valedictorians who applied precisely because grades are not all that matters. We chose you for your intellectual creativity and curiosity and your leadership potential.

So here you are, about to face your first challenging semester, full of potential and faced with so many choices about how to fulfill it: literally hundreds of courses and co-curricular activities to choose from, thousands of people to meet, a dynamic campus and American city to explore … yet so little time to get ready for the “real world.”

You may find it daunting to have so many choices so quickly thrust upon you. And you may be asking what so many Penn students have so often asked me:

Can I really risk taking some ridiculously hard course that intrigues me? Can I afford to immerse myself in a very demanding extracurricular activity just because I love it? If I’m really as smart as Penn and my parents thought I was to get admitted, shouldn’t I use my years at Penn prudently to chart a fail-safe, straight-A path to career success beyond graduation? If there’s another way to success in life, why is it so hard to find and why can’t I stop obsessing about my future career path?

Here’s what my first-hand experience and observation can offer you by way of a response. First, it is as normal as can be to fret about your future. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And it is perfectly rational to prepare yourselves for a career, or job, or grad school while you are at Penn.

BUT—and the real test of whether you realize your potential at Penn is the extent you can guide yourself by this BUT: It is not smart to focus exclusively on career goals. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is foolish. Letting your worries about job security get the best of you is just about the most wasteful thing a talented Penn student can do.

For a start, more often than not, it’s counterproductive: The best professional schools, the best graduate schools, and the most innovative businesses all prefer broadly educated students who have developed their creativity and leadership potential in unconventional ways. So, this is not the time to measure yourselves for corner offices, white coats, or pin-striped suits. This is a time for unleashing your creative energies and stretching your aesthetic, moral, scientific, and humanistic understandings.

I remember two college classmates who went out on a blind date to the movies early in their first year. It was 1967 – decades before computer dating, Facebook, and YouTube. You know from Neil Shubin: the late Devonian Period, more commonly known as the age of the Beatles, Dylan, and the Grateful Dead.

On the subway ride downtown, the young man asked his date what she wanted to do after graduating. “I’d like to teach high school math,” she replied. Not exactly a great conversation starter. But who could blame her? She had chosen to major in math because she had excelled in math and science.

“What about you?” she asked.

The young man replied, without missing a beat: “I want to be the Chief Theater Critic for the New York Times.”

And what became of that math major?

You’re looking at her!

I still enjoy solving math puzzles in my spare time, but had I not challenged myself as a freshman by taking an advanced Spanish lit course and a challenging political philosophy course, along with Physics and Math, I would never have published a prize-winning research paper or found the courage to switch to an interdisciplinary Social Science major. Had I not switched majors, I would not have found my true calling – to be a University professor, a scholar of democracy and education, and President of Penn.

On the road to Commencement, many of you will switch majors – and perhaps like me, also undergo a major academic conversion. But even if you are among the few, like my bind date, who actually wind up achieving your original goals, you will excel to the extent that you do not stick to the prevailing script. Those who reach the summit of their chosen callings travel unconventional paths. My blind date did not major in theater, he majored in history and literature.

As a rule, the most successful Penn students diversify their undergraduate portfolios in unusual and risky ways.

Like the recent College graduate who majored in Health and Societies, took up Italian for the first time, fell under Dante’s spell, and developed a deep interest in bio-informatics and anthropology. He just started medical school.

Or the Wharton student who was so inspired by an advanced Global Health course in medicine and nursing that she founded Wharton’s Social Impact Consulting Group. She is now a rising star at Google.

Or the Management and Technology Major who helped bring safe drinking water to a village in Honduras. He came back to launch a company that is developing sustainable solutions for delivering drinkable water to the developing world.

Or the eight Nursing students who went to Botswana to fulfill their community health clinical requirements. They are seeing first-hand the critical link between nursing science and the well-being of the world.

Ask yourselves: What do all of these Penn students share in common besides success? They manifest two characteristics of successful and happy people: Integrity and Courage.

They have the integrity to heed their inner voices to pursue what brings them the greatest joy and satisfaction.

They have the courage and integrity to steer clear of what sociologist David Reisman called The Lonely Crowd – the mass of other-directed people who take all their cues from outside pressures.

Inner-directed students show the courage of test pilots by pushing the envelope of learning as far as they can.

Flying at high speed is more daunting than walking or even running – but it’s also much more exhilarating and rewarding. You are not just covering a lot of well-charted territory. You are taking off to become the leaders and visionaries that our world most needs.

By the time you land, you will have discovered who you really are and what you’re really made of.

Ben Franklin said “there are three things extremely hard: steel, diamonds. and to know oneself.” In order to master the art of knowing yourself, you need to make the most of Franklin’s University – where academic integrity is always the rule and audacious intellectual inquiry is always in season.

Yes, you will become the best class ever to enter Penn -- not because of your grades or your high SAT scores, or your impressive GPAs, but by virtue of YOUR integrity and your courage. We see in you distinctively talented, inner-directed individuals who have the right stuff to learn and to lead, not to yield to the crowd. THAT is why we admitted you to Penn.

Four years from now, when you gather again as an entire class for your graduation, I hope you will look back on this Convocation as the moment when your inner pilot flashed the thumbs-up sign. For me, this will be the moment when I gave all you clearance to take your first test flights.

Members of the great Class of 2012: Enjoy the view and welcome to Penn.