The morning of Penn’s 260th University Commencement may have been blustery and cold, but President Amy Gutmann’s welcome to the Class of 2016 and its families was warm, as she extolled the virtues of friendship and spoke about its power to build bridges across divides which become the girders of a well-functioning society.
“We are at our best when we embrace these special friendships that cross religions, races - all kinds of identities and ideologies. And as it so happens, these are the very kinds of friendships you have been able to forge in your years at Penn,” Gutmann said during the May 16 ceremony. “These friendships we cherish across divides are at the heart of the Penn ethos.”
The truth of this was evident in the myriad groups of graduates illuminating campus with their excitement.
Lilly Claar of Scarsdale, N.Y., was preparing to sing the national anthem at the start of Commencement, surrounded by School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) classmates Harrison Pharamond and Mira Taichman from Philadelphia, and Scott Cesta of Hillsborough, N.J.
“You’re looking at a group of best friends right here,” said Cesta. “We all met through performing arts here. Harrison and I are in the same a cappella group and all four of us are in the same theater group, Quadramics. And now we all get to sit in the front row to support Lilly.”
Parents Michael and Donna Conway exuded a similar sense of appreciation for the friendships their son, SAS graduate John Conway, forged over his last four years. Natives of Philadelphia, they said he didn’t need to go farther than his hometown to receive a global education.
“His friends were a good support system for him and it definitely enriched his learning experience to be surrounded by different people from all over the world,” said Michael Conway.
Our increasingly globalized society has brought people together, but challenges in this process have been highlighted by recent national and world events.
“Mutual respect across divides has become scarce; understanding, rare,” Gutmann told the graduates, citing a “bare-knuckled election season, saturated with personal viciousness."
“Never in your lifetimes have the walls that threaten to divide us seemed higher,” she said, adding: “You and your generation of graduates are uniquely well-equipped to resist the horrors that can come from political and social polarization. … You understand that the key to achieving great things lies in bridging great divides.”
Case in point is Natalie Ehret of Ocean Park, N.J., a Nursing School graduate who said she has worked with people from all over the world during her time at Penn.
“There’s a really big focus on cultural competency in our program, just because we do serve a lot of different cultures, a lot more than students at a lot of other nursing schools,” Ehret said. “It’s really, really good.”
The importance of multiculturalism also underscored the words of Commencement speaker Lin-Manuel Miranda, who along with Hawa Abdi, Elizabeth Bailey, David Brooks, Renee Fleming, Sylvester James Gates, Jr., Asma Jahangir, and Eric Kandel, received an honorary degree at the ceremony.
“In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system,” Miranda said, referring to his award-winning production, “Hamilton.” “A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great, unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done.”
And the Class of 2016, who punctuated Miranda’s speech with enthusiastic cheers, will also get the job done. As Gutmann said in closing, the graduates have “those deep lessons in friendship that you have learned and offer to all of us. Making friends across divides and despite differences is not just a skill; it’s a virtue, a true virtue that will stand you in great stead for all your years to come.”
Gutmann’s words echoed the sentiments expressed by SAS graduates Kareen Movsesyan, Anup Singh, and Sam Allon outside the gates of Franklin Field earlier that morning.
“I’ve just met a lot of amazing people here,” Allon said. “Fortunately I’m standing next to two of them right now. It’s going to be hard to leave.”