Under gray, overcast skies, nearly 6,000 graduates of the University of Pennsylvania’s 12 schools marched down Locust Walk and into Franklin Field for Monday’s 255th Commencement ceremony.
In a nod to this year’s Commencement speaker, internationally renowned actor and director Denzel Washington, Penn President Amy Gutmann drew on the movies for some of her inspiring words to graduates. She said that “The Social Network” shows us that virtual relationships are no substitute for real ones, “Avatar” reminds us to respect nature, and “The King’s Speech” teaches us to judge individuals not by their rank, but by their merit.
“By following your heart, by giving it your all, by doing so with creativity and courage, you will not only be happy—you will be great,” Gutmann said. “You will be unstoppable.” Provost Vincent Price, along with University Secretary Leslie Laird-Kruhly, joined President Gutmann in conferring the honorary degrees, including the honorary doctor of arts degree to Washington.
In his speech, Washington admitted he was nervous, since speaking in front of graduates was out of his comfort zone. “I had to be here. I had to come even though I was afraid I would make a fool of myself. I had to come exactly because I might make a fool of myself,” he said. “If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything except my faith. I want to fall forward. I figure at least this way, I’ll see what I’m going to hit.”
Washington also emphasized the importance of taking risks: “Taking risks is not about going for a job; it’s also about knowing what you know and what you don’t know. It’s about being open to people and to ideas.”
Other 2011 Penn honorary degree recipients included Renée C. Fox, the Annenberg Professor Emerita of the Social Sciences at Penn and a pioneer in the field of medical sociology; Mo Ibrahim, the mobile communications entrepreneur who founded Celtel; Nicholas D. Kristof, columnist at The New York Times, and Sheryl WuDunn, senior managing director, Mid-Market Securities, and president of the social investing consultancy, TripleEdge; Ei-ichi Negishi, the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry; and Joyce Carol Oates, award-winning author, poet and playwright.