"To Become or Not To Become"

by Judith Rodin

 To this group of standouts, the class of 2004: It is a pleasure to welcome you to Penn as you begin a challenging journey that--contrary to rumor--will not resemble a four-year run of Survivor.

True, your professors will push you to the outer limits of your intellectual capacities and beyond.

True, your mastery of your coursework will be tested early and often.

True, you might be encouraged (but never forced) to help build a Habitat for Humanity House or solve a mind-bending problem.

And undoubtedly you will form alliances with classmates who will help you make it through those rough passages.

But there is no need for alarm.

There are no totem pole contests, immunity challenges, or rewards for backbiting.

No tribal peers will band together to summarily vote you off campus.

And as far as I know, no one will force you to eat a rat.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, we at Penn are not looking to take you out, shake you out, or fake you out. We want you to survive and thrive for the next four years.

Our goal is to provide a transformational life experience, one in which each of you grows intellectually, socially, and morally into outstanding men and women who will make Penn and the world better than you found them.

Of course, transformation is a major theme of The Metamorphosis, the book we all discussed this afternoon.

If Franz Kafka were living among us in Philadelphia, he might have penned a variation of the transformation theme. It might begin something like this:

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from anxious dreams of proseminars, orientation sessions and convocations, he found himself transformed into a giant Penn student.

He was lying on his back in his College House dorm, and when he lifted his head a little he could see a tall stack of books, his first checkbook to balance, and a huge load of laundry.

What has happened to me? he thought.

It was no dream.

Gregor had entered a new world --The world of Penn, an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns unchanged.

The discoveries and friends he would make, and the classes he would take, would transform him forever.

He would grow to enrich the legacy of Penn alumni who had risen to the pinnacle of every profession and life's calling: Alumni who included framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; Supreme Court Justices; Nobel Prize winners; and Olympic medalists.

Gregor stretched his limbs, which, much to his relief, still consisted of two arms and two legs.

He felt a jolt of excitement he had never felt before.

Amazing! he thought, what an incredible University I have picked!"

Yes, what an incredible University all of you have picked, a place to pursue your dreams, make new friends, and develop your unique talents and capacities for original thinking and critical problem-solving.

As a Penn undergraduate, I sat in your place some 30-odd years ago--and fantasized about the future as you probably are now.

I can confidently say that you were both wise and courageous to use your passport to come to this undiscovered country from which no traveler returns unchanged.

Those who know their Shakespeare no doubt recognize the allusion to the "undiscovered country." It comes from Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy.

But in this case, that is not the question that each of you will answer during the next four years. "To become or not to become." That is the question.

Whether you become a young woman or man who uses the skills and knowledge you acquire at Penn to help make the world what it ought to be--or become someone who believes that improving the world is not your business.

Whether you become men and women who look out for one another, academically and socially --or become someone who looks out only for number 1.

Whether you become someone who takes the time to enjoy the history, culture and beauty that surrounds you --or become blinkered by a tunnel-vision pursuit of only the degree.

And finally, whether you become noble exemplars of academic integrity, honesty and dignity--or become someone who violates those values that bind a community of scholars together.

And how will you become what you become?

Penn is richly endowed with world-class faculty who do outstanding work in their disciplines, and go many extra miles to share their findings with their students.

You will learn about groundbreaking new ideas pushing the envelope of new thinking in every field of knowledge imaginable.

Some of the faculty teach what are called academic-based service learning courses, in which students apply what they learn in the lab and classroom to solve real-world problems and challenges in our public schools, our local businesses, and our neighborhood.

These courses will provide a valuable experience that not only could change your life, but will put you in the habit of serving society, which Benjamin Franklin called "the great aim and end of all learning."

You will be equally inspired and challenged by your classmates. They have come from all over the country and all over the world. And they bring a dazzling array of talents, achievements, and experiences to campus.

Michael has already published an investment book and founded his own internet company.

Tai is a professional solo ballerina.

Sith spent a full year living the contemplative, ascetic life of a Buddhist monk in Thailand.

Owusu is a TV talk show host and screenwriter from Ghana.

Emily started a national newsletter and network for teenagers with Turner Syndrome.

Rory has biked 4,500 miles across Canada--twice.

And those of you who don't know yet what a Mummer is should meet Dan, who will be marching in the Mummers' Parade on New Year's Day.

It is natural to feel awed and maybe even a little intimidated by any of these accomplished men and women. You may not have met anyone like them.

But remember: They have not met anyone like you, either. Cultivate that. Let others discover you and learn from you as you learn from them. I also urge you to soak up as much knowledge, history, and culture as you can in this great University and city.

If you are a Wharton, Engineering, or Nursing student, drop in on an author's reading or a poetry slam at Writers' House.

If you are pursuing a humanities track, attend a lecture or symposium on the leading scientific and medical issues of the day.

And all of you should avail yourself of the rich history and cultural offerings in Philadelphia. Orientation has given you a taste of Philadelphia, whether it is the Italian Market in South Philadelphia, the spectacular Museum of Art, or Penn's own Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill. It would be a shame for you to pass the next four years here without spending time at these places and hundreds of others in Philadelphia.

I would like to close with a reminder that as of today, you have become part of the Penn family, and we believe in helping each other out.

If you find yourself falling behind in your coursework, if you are close to hitting the wall on a difficult assignment, or if you just need someone to talk to, do yourself a favor: Grab a lifeline.

Go directly to your resident advisor, graduate advisor, or College House Dean. One of them will make sure you get the academic and counseling support you need to adjust and succeed at Penn.

And please remember to be safe, be smart, and take care of one another.

For the next four years, this will be your home. And take it from one who made this campus her home during the 1960s and who feels blessed to live and work here now: There's absolutely no place like Penn!

There is no place like Penn that can claim so many "firsts" in America --the first University, the first medical school, the first business school. There is no university more engaged with, or enriched by, its neighbors and the great City of Philadelphia--than Penn.

There is no place like Penn that offers the setting, the resources, and the supports to inspire and help students on their personal and intellectual voyage.

And there is no place like Penn because Penn has the most valuable treasure of all: you!

I cannot wait to watch you grow and make your own special mark on Penn. Good luck! We are pulling for each of you! And welcome again.


 An Exceptional Time of Learning and Discovery

by Robert Barchi

 Thank you, President Rodin, and thank you for giving Gregor Samsa a new lease on life.

I know that the life of a Penn student beats the life of a bug, or a Princeton student, any day

Members of the Class of 2004--it is my great pleasure to join the President in formally welcoming you to the University of Pennsylvania. What a fantastic time to be joining our community of scholars; a time both of intellectual discovery and of eager anticipation of discoveries yet to be made. A time ideally suited to curious and creative minds like yours.

During my 25 years as a teacher and scientist on Penn's campus, I have seen some amazing developments in our knowledge about ourselves, our society, and the world in which we live. Yet, with a dizzying pace, each successive year seems to bring even more rapid progress than the last.

Just this past year, the Human Genome Project, one of the most ambitious and far-reaching research efforts ever undertaken, completed a catalogue of the entire DNA sequence encoding each of the hundreds of thousands of genes that are present in every cell of every human body.

Think about that for a moment. We now have in our hands the blueprint describing each of the key building blocks that uniquely constitute a human being. It's amazing!

But even as we revel in this remarkable scientific accomplishment we must be humbled by the stark reality of what we do not understand. Does the ability to list and describe each and every molecule that forms, animates, energizes and directs our bodies really tell us how our brain perceives the beauty of a sunrise, or conceives the masterpiece of a sonata? I don't think so. No more so than the Washington D.C. telephone directory fully informs us about the workings of a democratic government, or the moral, legal, and ethical issues that are being debated on Capitol Hill.

Superficially, there is very little that distinguishes our human DNA from that of a mouse. For any given gene, the human and mouse DNA sequence will be more than ninety percent identical. Why then do we possess a level of insight, self-awareness, and creativity that seems unique, and yet be formed by genes that appear to be so closely related to those of other living things around us? What is consciousness? What distinguishes my existence from yours? How do morals and mind relate to nerve cells and genes?

We are living in a time when fundamental scientific research on one hand, and deep contemplation about what it means to be truly human on the other, will necessarily draw upon, and be informed by one another. In this exciting era of learning, philosophy and ethics will meet science and technology head on. It will be a wonderful, explosive intellectual collision, and you will be right in the middle of it!

Whether you are here to study biology or philosophy, economics or English, nursing or engineering, you join us at an extraordinary time of discovery in every field and no doubt, many of you will help to shape the future of these fields and of new fields still to be defined.

In this time of rapid-fire discovery and exploration, I would love to be starting my own academic adventure over again. But the time is yours: embrace this opportunity to grow and to learn, as you begin your intellectual journey with us tonight.

Your journey at Penn is not confined to the development of your intellect. Just as you become a member of a community of scholars this week, you are also joining a family, one rich in tradition and loyalties.

You've all heard those stories about marine bootcamp training where new recruits are told to look to their right and look to their left and know that of every three individuals who start, only one will make it through to the end.

Your experience here will be very different. We know that we have already selected the very best and the very brightest students in the world. Our job is not to "weed you out," it is to help you grow.

Of the students who surround each of you now, more than 90 percent will march onto Franklin Field for graduation. We want you to succeed here, just as you did in high school. You are each a member of the Penn family now, and we will do our utmost to help you shine.

 Penn is, after all, only truly meaningful in terms of the people who make up our community. Our twelve schools with their wealth of intellectual resources provide access to a remarkable spectrum of wisdom and opportunities. But these opportunities are not found in the buildings and classrooms, but rather in the world-class faculty and staff you will meet here.

And our alumni-including many of your parents or relatives--perpetually reinvigorate the spirit of Penn. Penn is its people--past, present and future.

Of course, the group of people who will have the greatest impact on your experience here will be your peers. As you sit together tonight on the cusp of so much great learning and discovery, look carefully around you at your most important teachers--for no one will help you learn more than your suitemates, your teammates and your classmates.

From them you will gain the deepest insights about yourself. And because of them you will constantly need to reach higher to keep pace with their level of excellence and achievement. Remember that in secondary schools all over the world, they were you--the standout students in their class. And now they join you as fellow travelers on this new terrain.

Each of you arrived here with remarkable records, well and honestly earned, that made you stand out in high school. As we looked through your exceptional applications last fall and this spring, we did not look just at numbers--at high SATs and GPAs. We sought evidence of character and dedication; of integrity and commitment; of devotion and service to the community.

As you travel along your chosen academic path during the coming years, it may seem at times that the level of competition you face could force you to compromise the very integrity that brought you to us. Do not allow yourselves to be lured by the temptation of a shortcut here and there on your way to academic excellence. Integrity does not offer any shortcuts; there are no abbreviations in the true pursuit of knowledge.

At Penn, we value intellectual honesty and integrity as highly as we value achievement and knowledge. We expect you to rise on your own merits and we will provide ample support to help you get there if you should need a hand. We are committed to assisting each of you so that you can meet the intellectual challenges that lay ahead.

For you, the Class of 2004, this is a defining moment; a transition between a world that is familiar and was created for you and one that is for now largely unknown and will be created by you. At this critical stage in your educational journey the initiative shifts largely to you: you must seek out challenge, you must seize opportunity; you must create your own path. Create it well, and carefully.

As you become a member of this new Penn family, this community of scholars, I urge you to consider the responsibility that each of you has to one another. Look out for your friends; take a moment to be sure that your roommate or classmate is okay. Contribute to our community in as many ways as you can--certainly academically. But also consider giving a bit more of yourself to this new and treasured place; take your civic responsibilities seriously. Be aware; think fun, but think smart.

You will define Penn during your four years here. It is your energy and enthusiasm that will carry this campus through its joys and through its difficult times.

As faculty members and administrators, we look forward to watching you grow and shape our campus culture during your time with us and well beyond.

Tonight, as you formally join our Penn family, what I wish for you is this:

That in four years you will say that you have learned and grown beyond your wildest expectations; that you felt a true sense of community and brotherhood with your peers and with your faculty colleagues.

That your intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge reached new heights.

That you felt supported and secure.

That you made lasting memories.

That you are eager to start your new life but will sorely miss the Red and Blue.

In your four years at Penn, I wish for you endless discovery, unlimited imagination, enduring friendships and satisfying achievements. Grow wisely. And enjoy every possible minute you can in this extraordinary place during this exceptional time of learning and discovery.



Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 3, September 12, 2000