Baccalaureate Address by President Amy Gutmann
May 14, 2006
Turning Setbacks into Success
Parents, families, friends, and colleagues, welcome.
And congratulations to members of the great Class of 2006!
I recently received an interesting email. The subject line read: “Time Travelers, Please Help!!!!”
Here’s the gist of the email: “If you have the technology to travel physically through time, I need your help. I need to be able to rewind my life—including my age—back to four.
If you can help me I will pay for your trip down here, along with hotel stay, food and all expenses.”
I love the next part: “I will pay top dollar for the equipment. Proof must be provided.”
Parents and families, you can easily picture your children at four years of age. But imagine how amazed they will leave us all ten years hence.
Consider the story of a Penn international relations major named Mike Feinberg, who graduated from Penn in 1991.
Mike was determined to make a difference right away. After graduation he joined Teach for America, which trains young college graduates to teach in underserved communities. Mike drew a tough teaching assignment: a fifth-grade class in one of the poorest sections of Houston, Texas. He came face-to-face with two daunting obstacles: the barriers poverty erects against learning … and his own inexperience.
Let’s put ourselves in Mike’s shoes. Imagine standing before an overcrowded class of youngsters. Many of them went to bed hungry the night before. Many of them can barely read at a third grade level. Some of them are more caught up with their gang rivalries than with their studies.
Mike threw himself into the job. He improved his own skills and struggled to reach his students.
Still, Mike was getting nowhere. Academic performance remained poor. So Mike had a decision to make. Should he move on to a job where the rewards outnumbered the frustrations? Certainly no one would think less of him.
Or, should he hang in there despite the long odds against success?
Mike came up with a third alternative. He and a fellow teacher pulled an all-nighter to design a new breed of school that could give these kids a better chance to beat the odds. Success would require innovative teaching and disciplinary methods, longer hours, and written agreements among students, parents, and teachers. They called their idea the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP.
The Houston school district accepted their proposal to create a KIPP charter school, which became a winner. The kids got turned onto learning. Math and reading scores shot up.
Today Mike Feinberg’s KIPP foundation manages more than 40 middle schools and is extending the program to elementary and high schools. Mike even appeared on Oprah last month.
Before you file this story in the “superstar” box, remember: Mike Feinberg faced his share of hard knocks after graduation. Far from setting the world on fire, he was struggling. But he never thought he was failing.
Fired by the “can-do” Penn spirit, Mike persuaded weary school district officials to take a chance on two novice teachers. The same spirit helped Mike acquire the skills he needed to learn from his mistakes, to grow, and to succeed.
Members of the great Class of 2006, the “can-do flame” burns brightly in each of you.
The spark led some of you to design a clean water system for a Honduran village, and others to prepare tax returns at no cost for our West Philadelphia neighbors.
Still others created montages of hula hoops and sequined slippers to probe societal standards of femininity.
Many of you will blaze several trails before choosing a life-long career. Whatever trail you blaze, recognize that your future will depend on your ability to turn setbacks into success.
When you reach a difficult crossroads: Review your options. If you must, pull an all-nighter as Mike Feinberg did. Then make your move, and make a difference.
Congratulations, and Godspeed.
Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 34, May 23, 2006