Penn’s 259th University Commencement drew visitors from all corners of the world Monday, May 18, filling Franklin Field with languages representative of Penn’s widely diverse community.
The audience erupted in collective applause when the graduates they’d traveled near and far to see filed into the stadium: the best and brightest new innovators, problem-solvers, and thought leaders from across the University’s 12 schools.
Among them was Penn Dental graduate Yuning Weber. With his doctoral degree in hand, he’ll soon be off to work as a dentist for the U.S. Navy.
“I feel excited,” he said while lining up for the student procession on Locust Walk. “A little overwhelmed. I’m seeing old family, friends here. It feels good.”
Weber was born and raised in China. He immigrated to the United States in 1997, and after high school, enrolled in the U.S. Navy. After serving, he used his military benefit to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he studied biology. His next leap was to Penn, where he studied dental medicine for four years on another military scholarship.
“There were ups and downs, stressful at times, but mostly ups,” he says. “Being here makes everything worth the effort.”
Irma Cruz, mother of graduate Kevin Cruz of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, spoke of the busy workload that her son undertook in his four years at Penn, ameliorated by the support of his classmates, friends, and professors. She said, “he really liked the feeling of community here.”
The uniquely close nature of the Penn community is a strength that President Amy Gutmann pointed to in her Commencement speech, describing the University as “a community where everything is nearby and where everyone interacts.”
Addressing the graduates, she said, “You have spent your time here within a few minutes’ walk of everything important: your classmates, your professors, Penn’s libraries, and laboratories,” concluding that “your life at Penn has been shaped by proximity.”
Gutmann noted that a Penn education has made the graduates adept at crossing borders and leaping boundaries, even as some seek to counter those efforts.
“You are the antidote,” Gutmann said. “Because you have embraced the world at Penn, you stand ready to move the world beyond hostility and hatred.”
Gutmann’s inspiring assertions were augmented when U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power brought her hopeful but realistic words to the field with a speech about the importance of making a difference in the world.
With a background that scales from war reporter and human rights defender to professor and diplomat, Power explained that her experiences taught her that, “any change worth making is going to be hard.”
She expressed four ways graduates can make a tangible difference: Act “as if”; know something about something; bring others along; and humanize a cause.
“You are going out into a world of profound challenges,” she stated. “The path to solving these big problems begins with small solutions. And it starts with individuals. Individuals like you.”
Daphne Owen, a Class of 2015 graduate from the Perelman School of Medicine, is one of those people. Owen, whom Power mentioned in her speech, got involved with the Penn program Puentes de Salud, or Bridges of Health, and created an afterschool program for kids of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Owen’s efforts stemmed from a conversation with Mexican co-workers at her former workplace.
“Amidst all the darkness of the world, it can be easy to lose sight of all the bright spots,” Power says. “But look around you: They are all around you.”
Penn parent Kalyani Boppana needed to look no further than the experience of her daughter, newly minted Penn Law graduate Roshni Boppana. Kalyani Boppana said her daughter “learned so much about the world and life” at Penn “and was inspired by many people she met here, people like her classmate Andrew Towne.”
Towne, who graduated Monday with MBA and JD degrees from a joint program at the Wharton School and Penn Law, was climbing Mount Everest to raise money for a nonprofit that promotes international solidarity when the first of two earthquakes struck Nepal in late April. Lucky to be alive, Towne is now seeking ways to support the victims of the deadly quakes.
Other highlights of the ceremony included Gutmann’s conferral of honorary degrees upon Perelman School of Medicine Professor Emeritus Arthur K. Asbury; Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger; PHILADANCO and Philadelphia School of Dance Arts Founder Joan Myers Brown; multiple award-winning performer Rita Moreno; Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa; Harvard Professor and constitutional scholar Cass R. Sunstein; and Power.
Provost Vincent Price also acknowledged the award recipients from the Class of 2015, including the winners of the inaugural President’s Engagement Prizes: Adrian Lievano, Matthew Lisle, Jodi Feinberg, Shadrack Frimpong, and Katlyn Grasso. These five graduates will receive funding over the course of the coming year to bring their local, national, or global engagement projects to fruition.
While these President’s Engagement Prize winners are traveling as far as Kenya to implement their projects, changing the world doesn’t mean Penn graduates have to cross the globe.
Take Emma and Laura Schad, for instance. The two sisters from Philadelphia graduated from the College of Arts & Sciences and the Graduate School of Education, respectively. They have another sister, too, who graduated from Penn last year, and has aspirations for law school.
Next on Emma’s journey is a job with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Laura will be a middle school teacher at a Philadelphia-based school. They are sisters from Philadelphia, who are staying local, and will unequivocally make the world a better place, from their and Penn’s hometown.
They’ve already crossed one border by graduating from Penn.
“The unexpected awaits you, and no one can tell you exactly what will come,” Gutmann said. “But I can tell you this: We here today are sure of your abilities, we are confident of your opportunities, and we are very proud of the good you now go forth to do, crossing borders and leaping boundaries.”