Speaking at Penn’s 255th Commencement on May 16, Tony and two-time Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington admitted he was “out of his comfort zone.”
“The best way to keep your attention would be to talk about juicy Hollywood stuff … but you’re a group of high-minded intellectuals,” said Washington, who received an honorary Doctor of Arts that day and whose son Malcolm is a rising junior in the College.
So, instead, he urged the members of the Class of 2011 not to fall back on anything, but to “be open to life.”
In his signature bellowing voice, Washington spoke of the risks he took in his life and the failures he experienced, which were ultimately necessary for the success he has had. He told students of a time he didn’t get a part in a musical that was held at the same theater in which he played his Tony-winning performance thirty years later.
“Every graduate here today has the training and the talent to succeed, but do you have the guts to fail?” he asked the audience. “If you don’t fail, you’re not even trying.”
Washington also added that taking risks in life includes being open to new people and ideas, as his character Joe Miller in the 1993 film Philadelphia learned to do.
“When you leave the friendly confines of Philly, never be discouraged, never hold back, give everything you’ve got and when you fall ... remember this — fall forward,” Washington said at the end of his address, as students stood to applaud.
Penn President Amy Gutmann, who called herself a “movie buff,” shared lessons she has learned from her favorite films.
In the 2010 movie Unstoppable, Washington’s character saved the day by stopping an out-of-control freight train on its way to Scranton, Pennsylvania. “If you combine courage with creativity, if you remain determined, then success — however you define it — is unstoppable,” Gutmann said. “My beloved Class of 2011, you are also unstoppable.”
University Chaplain and 2000 Penn graduate Charles Howard said that the members of the Class of 2011 have been teachers as well as hard-working students. They have taught activism through silent protests, how to win Ivy League championships and how to be green in caring for the environment in addition to Red and Blue, he said.
Graduating from Penn was “surreal,” 2011 College graduate Jaya Ramesh said. “It’s both good and bad, but I’m excited for what’s to come.” She added that hearing Washington speak was “humbling.”
2011 College graduate Alyssa Birnbaum said Washington is a “fantastic actor” and that his speech was “entertaining.” However, she was not completely thrilled.
“I would expect more from an Ivy League University,” Birnbaum said. “It was more of a show … too much became focused on [Washington].”
Speakers at the graduation ceremonies of other Penn schools this year included former Governor and 1965 College graduate Ed Rendell for the School of Arts and Sciences and the Law School and John Lehman, chairman of private equity investment firm J.F. Lehman and Company, for the School of Engineering doctoral ceremony.
1987 College graduate and potential 2012 presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. spoke at last year’s Commencement.
Also receiving honorary degrees this year were journalists and Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Ei-ichi Negishi, author and National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates, entrepreneur and founder of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Mo Ibrahim and sociologist Renée Fox.