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"A mutual, joint-stock world in all meridians*": The Baccalaureate Address by James J. O'Donnell, Professor of Classical Studies and Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing.


View the Baccalaureate addresses in streaming video.

Baccalaureate Address by President Judith Rodin, May 12, 2002

Rapturous Consciousness of Life Beyond Self

Graduates of the Class of 2002, families, friends, deans, members of the faculty, Provost-elect O'Donnell, and all honored guests:

In 1723, a very young man arrived in Philadelphia, jobless with no more than a Dutch dollar in his pocket and two years of formal schooling under his belt. In fact, he was about the same age as tomorrow's graduates were when they came to the University of Pennsylvania four years ago. As a rule, the world did not hold out great expectations, let alone, hope, for penniless teen-age drifters.

But Benjamin Franklin was an exception who set even greater expectations for himself and went on to surpass them. Drawing upon his wits, pluck, and insatiable curiosity about everything, Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania. He also founded the nation's first free library system, the first insurance company, and the American Philosophical Society, the first scholarly organization to encourage accomplished intellectuals to advance practical knowledge in the sciences and humanities. Franklin became a writer, scientist, inventor, philanthropist, statesman, diplomat, philosopher, and engaged citizen--all of world-class rank and stature.

Because he had faith in himself, Franklin lived the fullest life imaginable. Imagine what he could have accomplished with a Penn education today!

Graduates, imagine what you can accomplish with your Penn education, which has never held greater value or importance than now.

We are living in exciting and perilous times. America is at war against a global network of terror. The economy might not be as robust as it was two years ago, but, like our graduates, it has proved to be more resilient and shock-absorbent than many might have believed.

Graduates, whatever challenges lie ahead, you hold the trump card: your Penn degree. A degree that says you have acquired the knowledge, expertise, and habit of thinking that empowers you to solve any problem, adapt to change, and face any challenge, however daunting. That degree reminds you as well of the personal growth you have experienced, all those inspiring conversations you have held on the meaning of life, and all the friendships you have formed in this most diverse of communities and nurturing of environments.

While your Penn education has given you a raft of career options, your Penn experience has given you an intimation, a foretaste, of a fully lived life. You've had four years to find your voice, hear your calling, and develop what George Eliot called a "rapturous consciousness of life beyond self."

On the wings of rapturous consciousness, many of you have done some miraculous work at Penn and for Penn.

I recall, for example, how a group of Penn Engineering students pooled their talents and their passion for community service to launch "Puente," a non-profit venture that, as its name suggests, aimed to "bridge" the digital divide in low-income areas locally and throughout the world. In just three years, Puente, which is now merged with CommuniTech, has brought the liberating wonders of computing and the internet to classrooms in Ecuador, India, Mali, Ghana, and West and North Philadelphia. All told, CommuniTech has delivered the benefits of technology to more than a thousand underprivileged people worldwide.

I recall how two Wharton students spearheaded the effort to create an academic concentration in entrepreneurship. By all accounts, they did a masterful job rallying support among faculty and peers to push this innovative concept through, And today, the Entrepreneurial Program is one of the more popular and successful concentrations at Wharton.

I have seen our Nursing students apply a rapturous consciousness of life beyond the self to bring renewal and hope to those most in need of healing. One of our Nursing graduates won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Mexico and design strategies to deliver better health care to Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants to America.

I have also seen students in the College express a rapturous consciousness of life through art. Last month's Senior Thesis Exhibition at Charles Addams Hall, for example, featured a stunning display of paintings, photographs, films, and ceramics. Some were beautiful. Some were necessarily disturbing. All brimmed with creative genius in full flower, and radiated a kind of restless energy.

As one of the artists wrote in the exhibition catalogue, "I am never satisfied. Ever. Not with one academic field, a single subject, or a solitary method of art-making. My work is about discovery, about the constant pursuit of a new solution, a better way out, a more interesting conclusion. The result is simply a record, a cherished souvenir of the paths I took to find it."

Graduates, all of you have collected your own share of souvenirs, reminders of perhaps the most transformative period in your lives. As you leave the scene of this incredible transformation, the greater challenge for you is not finding a job and fashioning successful careers. Rather, the greater challenge is preserving and cultivating that rapturous consciousness of life beyond your Penn years, especially as you struggle with obligations that absorb so much time and with mundane annoyances that test your patience.

The problem is, the outside world will be less nurturing and accommodating than Penn, and repeating the past four years is only an option if you are determined to send your parents off the deep end.

But you can translate your Penn experience into a meaningful program of continuing intellectual and personal growth.

You can push your budding consciousness to the ultimate expression of rapture: a fully lived life.

In trying to live a full life, try to emulate Benjamin Franklin by following a checklist.

First, try to carve out a space in time each week for reflection, rest, and renewal, where the noise and distractions of the outside world cannot intrude.

Second, cultivate ties and friendships with others who will encourage you, challenge you, and inspire you in your professional aspirations and personal life. Beginning with family and radiating outward into a community of friends and colleagues that extends down the block and around the world, this circle of humanity will enrich your life in every way. These networks can't quite recapture the frequency of soulful exchanges you had as students at Penn. But they will provide a circle of companions and friends who will be there with you through all your professional and personal growth spurts, as well as be there for you through times of difficulty and distress.

Of course, no one has had more experience in overseeing your growth spurts and binding your wounds more than your mothers. On this Mothers' Day, let's take a moment to thank all the moms for always being there for their children.

Finally, I ask you to keep faith and hope in life itself, and in the notion of an ultimately redeemed world--regardless of the dangers and challenges lurking ahead.

We see miraculous transformations and progress taking place all the time--beginning right here with the progress we have made at Penn and throughout West Philadelphia.

I also am reminded of a dissident playwright who, writing 20 years ago to his wife from a prison in Prague, remarked that "anyone who loses [hope and faith] is lost, regardless of what good fortune may befall him," whereas "those who do not lose it can never come to a bad end."

"This," the playwright said, "doesn't mean closing one's eyes to the horrors of the world. Quite the contrary in fact: Only those who have not lost faith and hope can see the horrors of the world with genuine clarity." This playwright later expanded on this paradox.

If "nothingness wins out," he wrote, "dramatic tension vanishes, man surrenders to apathy, and faith and meaning exist only as a backdrop against which others become aware of his fall."

Graduates, the political prisoner who penned those words was Vaclav Havel, who a decade later would be elected president of a free Czechoslovakia.

Now, I certainly don't believe any of you needs a prison term to gain the liberating insights Havel expressed. You've already done time in the study carrels of Van Pelt. Many of you have even ridden the elevators in the high rises.

Yet, I would hope your Penn experience has given you the faith and hope to see the world more clearly and to appreciate your incredible capacity to live a life rewarding to yourself and beneficial to humanity.

An 18th century mystic wrote that "From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven." Make that light a visible reality for us all.

Stay in hot pursuit of that rapturous consciousness of life within and beyond.

You have a job to do. But you also have a life to live. May you live it to the fullest.

Almanac, Vol. 48, No. 34, May 21, 2002


May 21, 2002
Volume 48 Number 34

A National Medal of Science for a pioneering Penn physicist.

SEAS selects two recipients for its annual awards.
Wharton gives awards to dozens of its faculty.
The concern about bicyclists on campus picks up momentum.
Search Committees are formed to advise on selecting two new deans.
Next Tuesday is PPSA's annual meeting and election.
Baccalaureate and Commencement speeches and photographs.
University Council committee year-end reports on Bookstores, Communications, and Community Relations.
The largest voluntary canine blood donor program in the US gets new wheels.

Recognized Holidays for faculty and staff, and revisions to the Academic Calendar.

A dozen new CCTV locations for public spaces are added to those previously approved.