Playing on his specialty in foreign policy, Vice President Joe Biden gave a Commencement address on Monday morning that emphasized the United States’ potential for leadership in the 21st century.
“We are so well-positioned to lead the world in the 21st century that we have to take advantage of it,” he told the 6,000 graduates. “You — this is not hyperbole — you, all those receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees today, are going to make it possible.”
Biden, whose sons graduated from Penn and granddaughter is a rising sophomore, spoke in front of the graduates and about 20,000 guests in Franklin Field at the University’s 257th Commencement ceremony.
This year marked the first time a sitting vice president has ever given a Penn commencement address.
Drawing parallels between his generation of college graduates during the social turmoil of the late 1960s and today’s graduates, Biden lauded the social achievements made by young people over the past four years — such as increasing support of LGBT rights and gay marriage.
“No graduating class gets to choose the world into which they graduate,” he said. “Every class enters a history that up to this point has been written for you. But few — few enter at a point when they genuinely have a chance to write a new chapter, to bend history just a little bit. I suggest your class has that chance.”
He listed a number of emerging technologies — such as electric vehicles, blood cells engineered to fight cancer and superconductors — as keys to American competitiveness. He also argued that concerns about China overtaking the United States are not well-founded.
“You cannot think different in a nation where you cannot challenge orthodoxy,” he said, citing a commencement address Apple founder Steve Jobs gave in 2005. “Change only comes from challenging orthodoxy.”
Biden also took aim at deniers of climate change, reiterating a new policy priority that the Obama administration has taken up during its second term.
Penn President Amy Gutmann, in her opening remarks, spoke of the importance of service and citizenship. “Good citizenship encompasses every facet of life. It is an example of engagement, exemplary engagement, with others,” she said. “You have demonstrated the best way to combine learning well and living well is by serving others.”
A number of businesspeople, politicians and academics were awarded honorary degrees during the ceremony. Joining Biden among them were Xerox CEO Ursula Burns — the first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company — Nigeria’s Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Penn sociology professor emeritus Samuel Preston.
“Everyone we’re honoring today will tell you their beginnings were humble and their greatest satisfactions came from serving others,” Gutmann said of the honorary degree recipients.
While Biden vowed at the beginning of his speech not to give advice because he has “been around too long to think that’s useful,” he left graduates with one word of guidance.
“Don’t listen to the cynics. That’s the only piece of advice I will give you and of which I’m absolutely certain,” he said. “They were wrong about my generation and they’re wrong about yours.”
Students reacted positively to Biden’s address and the ceremony overall.
“I thought Joe Biden was really good,” graduating College senior David Fertig said. “I was surprised by how much he said. I thought he would be really political and not really say anything.”
Daniel Wei, an Engineering senior who participated in commencement but will come back to finish his master’s degree in the fall, agreed.
“It was amazing,” he said of the ceremony. “I thought [Biden’s speech] was very inspiring and funny.” He also noted that while he was expecting the vice president to make one of his typical “gaffes,” he didn’t notice any.
Other graduation speakers over the course of the weekend at individual school ceremonies included Laura Bush, former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell.