Gray skies and a light sprinkle couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm as 5,858 graduates made their way to Franklin Field for Penn’s 256th Commencement on May 14.
University Chaplain Charles L. Howard urged the Class of 2012 to offer thanks to their parents and other loved ones and to the faculty, staff and administration that helped them achieve their goals. In prayer, Howard congratulated the students for their academic excellence and praised them for their strengths and their power of commitment.
President Amy Gutmann called the graduates an exceptional class that “does nothing by half measures,” and cited four individuals whose perseverance and service illustrated their drive: Jibron Kahn, who overcame the loss of his father to become president of his class during both his junior and senior years; Katie McCabe, who volunteered in the West Philadelphia community and took groups of students on alternate spring breaks focused on civic service; Triston Francis, who overcame the adversity of an inner city upbringing to become Onyx president; and Zack Rosen, the Quaker basketball guard whose commitment to excellence led him to be named Ivy League Player of the Year.
“Our society and our world desperately need leaders who are less like Napoleon and more like Kahn, McCabe, Francis and Rosen,” Gutmann said, explaining that these students embodied the principles of a “truly collaborative generation.”
Gutmann said members of this graduating class are living in a new America, infused with the power of collaboration through technology. Already, she explained, some have created apps and websites to help tutor school children, find lost loved ones in a natural disaster and advance diplomacy.
Paraphrasing Penn’s founder, Benjamin Franklin, Gutmann told the graduates, “If you are wrapped up in yourself, you make a very small bundle. …You are no small bundles.”
Following the theme of service and collaboration, guest speaker Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, implored the Class of 2012 to bring their talents and join his “losing team” in the war on poverty, violence and the lack of education.
The Harlem Children’s Zone serves thousands of Central Harlem children from the time they are born through college, and is considered a model of positive community empowerment across the nation. Canada’s groundbreaking work was featured in the award-winning 2010 documentary film “Waiting for Superman.”
“Do you know why I offer you this opportunity to play on the losing side?” he asked. “Because in the end we are going to win. Because we are right. ”
“There is no way that our great democracy will continue to be a beacon to the free world if the rich hate the poor, and the poor hate the rich. If our middle class becomes a thing that your children will read about in their history books because it no longer exists, our country will decline,” Canada said. “If we continue to have neighborhoods that the affluent are dying to get into, and the poor live in neighborhoods where they are just dying, we will have lost the promise of America. So you see, I know an enlightened, educated group of men and women would not tolerate their country drifting towards this calamity. So in the end we will win.”
Before delivering his address, Canada received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from the University. Also presented with honorary degrees were: David H. Petraeus, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and retired U.S. Army general; John R. Lewis, civil rights activist, U.S. congressman from Georgia and recipient of the 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom; Ruzena Bajcsy, a pioneering researcher in machine perception, robotics and artificial intelligence and a Penn professor emerita of computer science and engineering; Akira Endo, biochemist, pioneering statins researcher and president of Tokyo’s Biopharm Research Laboratories; Peter D. Lax, mathematical theorist whose work has implications in weather forecasting, airplane design and telecommunications signaling; and Anna Deavere Smith, social activist, creator of “documentary theater” and award-winning actress and playwright.
Text by Julie McWilliams
Photos by Steve Minicola & Scott Spitzer