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Convocation 2004

Below is the Convocation addresses given by Interim Provost Peter Conn to the Class of 2008 on College Green last Tuesday evening, September 7, 2004. Click here for the address given by President Amy Gutmann.

The Power of Place by Peter Conn

Thank you, President Gutmann.

Members of the Class of 2008–it is my great pleasure to join the President in welcoming you to the University of Pennsylvania.

Students, you all know the rules on grand occasions like this: I talk, and you listen.

However, just for a moment, let's suspend the rules. Turn to the persons on your left and right, and those in front of you and behind you, and say hello.

There's a good chance that the people you just greeted didn't look very much like you.  And that is a chief emblem of Penn's identity and strength. You comprise the latest chapter in this University's ongoing, idealistic experiment in international, multi-cultural living.

We have searched the globe for the best and brightest, knowing that our search would necessarily lead us to the astonishing diversity that you embody.

We believe deeply that excellence in the twenty-first century requires an awareness and appreciation of human differences across the broadest spectrum of intellectual, cultural and personal experience.

You are painters, poets and scientists, young entrepreneurs and scholars, sports fanatics and sport phobics.

You are mavens and connectors and some of you are salesmen.

Academically, you are enrolled in Nursing, Engineering, Wharton, and the College.

Think, for just a moment, about the 2,400 stories that you incorporate: 2,400 separate pathways that have led to this wonderful gathering.

Writers often talk about the power of place. We are all shaped in profound ways by the places in which we live and work–homes, schools, neighborhoods, countries. Our lives are the narratives of these places.

Penn is not only your new school; it is your new home, your new family. You will find it to be a powerful place. It is the place in which you will continue to define yourself, partly through discovery and partly through invention, urged on by your intellectual curiosity and your sense of adventure.

You will be stimulated as well by those around you tonight, the fellow students with whom your own story is now entwined.

Four years from now, you will be a much different person than you are today because of the influence of this extraordinary place.

Let me tell you about two students who sat where you are sitting, not many years ago, two young people who have gone from here to make a mark on the world.

Andrew Exum, Class of 2000, was a provocative columnist for the Daily Pennsylvanian. His columns were consistently candid, sensible, good humored, and often courageous. Andrew stood out because he stood up. He stood up to authority. To his peers. To any decision that struck him as unfair or hypocritical.

After he graduated, Andrew, a member of Penn's ROTC program, served as a platoon leader in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. When he returned from the war, this former English and classics major wrote a book, This Man's Army: A Soldier's Story. He's been on a book tour this summer and will travel to Beirut this fall to take up Arabic Studies.

Then there is Lipika Goyal, Class of 2001 and a Rhodes Scholar. Before leaving for Oxford, Lippy, as she was known to us, had already spent summers in India and Ghana conducting research on malaria and sickle cell anemia. Lippy's commitment to improving health care in the developing world grew out of a class she took in medical anthropology. Lippy will finish medical school in a couple of years, and I have no doubt her contributions to medicine and to global health will be exceptional.

Andrew and Lippy are just two of your remarkable predecessors.

In choosing this wonderful place, you are now included in an unbroken chain of distinction that binds you to those who came before—class by class, decade by decade—for two and a half centuries.

From Andrew Exum and Lippy Goyal, back through Alice Paul, the Penn graduate who drafted the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1920s, to the Penn alums who signed the Declaration of Independence and sealed the connection between this University's history and that of the nation.

In short, every one of you is the fortunate heir to generations of achievement. It will be your task to add to that honorable record.

I am confident, that in just a few years, a later Penn provost will stand here and pridefully tell another incoming class about the accomplishments of the men and women of 2008.

As you re-define yourselves over the years ahead, take full advantage of our campus resources: the splendid libraries and laboratories, the museums and galleries and theaters, the athletics facilities, the common spaces in the College Houses.

Make sure you explore and use this great city as well. Philadelphia is another powerful place, soaked in history but absolutely up to date, rich in superlative art and architecture, and vibrant with music and theater and fun and terrific food.

Take advantage, above all, of the University's faculty, an assembly of world-class scholars, scientists, artists, and teachers. Penn's faculty are a truly awesome bunch, responsible for fundamental advances in knowledge across fields that range from architecture to constitutional law, from marketing to cardiology.

Our faculty include some of the most distinguished academics in the nation: historians like Steven Hahn, whose book, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration recently won the Pulitzer Prize; and Sarah Kagan in our School of Nursing whose breakthrough research in gerontological nursing earned a MacArthur Fellowship last year.

Research and scholarship are agents of change. The findings of scientists and scholars often transform the way we see the world.

The core values of the University, on the contrary, remain changeless and non-negotiable: a commitment to academic integrity; a hunger for knowledge; and a belief that the cultivated intellect is our only protection against the risks and disorder with which our world is so obviously threatened.

I have spoken of the power of place; let me conclude by returning once more to that theme.

As you look into the future from this special evening, you have long and productive lives ahead of you.

But no matter where you find yourself in those years, whether you move from country to country or quickly settle down, you will live most of your life in your own mind. Your mind is your constant place, and your job over the next four years is to furnish it as variously, as abundantly, as spaciously as you can.

Explore. Learn. Take risks. Reach out. Remain open. Welcome each day as a matchless opportunity to grow.

Members of the Class of 2008, this is your place and this your time at Penn  I am delighted to welcome you.

Congratulations and good luck.



  Almanac, Vol. 51, No. 3, September 14, 2004


September 14, 2004
Volume 51 Number 3


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