Early on May 14, graduates in black gowns, colored hoods, and caps filed down Locust Walk to attend Penn’s 262nd Commencement ceremony at Franklin Field. Speakers from a range of fields talked about the importance of unity, engagement, and facts to a stadium packed full of family and friends.
Before NBC News anchor Andrea Mitchell delivered her commencement speech, the ceremony began with a procession of alumni bearing red and blue flags, followed by the entrance of three-dozen faculty in doctoral garbs.
At the beginning of her opening speech, Penn President Amy Gutmann asked all graduates to stand up in an “experiment.” She then asked the “bare knees” graduates who were wearing skirts and shorts to sit down, followed by those without wrist-watches, and finally, those not wearing a Power of Penn T-shirt. One student remained standing, 2018 College Graduate Makayla Reynolds, whom Gutmann said she had asked to be a volunteer.
Gutmann compared her experiment to the divisions that exist in society and advocated unity.
“Too many people in this world would have us stand apart from one another based on our differences,” Gutmann said. “Too many others for the sake of sameness would have us deny our individuality, which is character, not clothing.”
Gutmann recounted the story of 2014 College Graduate Dau Jok, whose father was killed in the Sudanese Civil War. She shared that Jok’s family then fled to Des Moines, Iowa and repeated some of Jok’s words from a speech he gave during his time at Penn.
“Dau’s message was clear — we must all speak the values that we share,” she said.
During her speech, Gutmann talked about when she first arrived at college as a first-generation student, she brought a suitcase of formal clothes in order to fit in. Looking back, she said that she is thankful her friend told her to exchange these clothes, as they did not represent who she was.
2018 Master's of Material Science and Engineering Graduate Tian Tian Xu said that this aspect of Gutmann’s speech stood out to her.
“Many years ago, she was similar to me,” Xu said.
Roscoe Porter, the grandfather of 2018 Nursing Graduate Charis Anderson, said that he enjoyed Gutmann’s enthusiasm during her speech and throughout the ceremony.
During the Commencement speech, NBC News’ Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent and 1967 Penn Graduate Andrea Mitchell detailed her experience facing gender inequity as a female journalist.
“I am here today, because when I arrived as an uninformed 16-year-old freshman, the university gave me choices at a time that it was not self evident that women could strive to compete as equal,” she said.
Mitchell then reminisced about “the curfews, the dress code, the rules that did not apply to the men” during her speech. Later on, she said that she was “proud of the women and men who are no longer willing to tolerate sexual predators” in the “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” movements.
Mitchell also talked about the importance of facts and the modern-day accusations of fake news.
“These days ‘fake news’ is also what people call news they don’t agree with,” she said. “Honest, fearless journalism is essential to sustaining our democracy.”
2018 Wharton and Engineering Graduate Chris Painter said that Mitchell’s speech stood out to him because it was political, but she never explicitly mentioned President Donald Trump by name.
To a standing ovation of graduates, faculty, and audience members, Mitchell left students with a parting message that stressed the need for engagement.
“It is on us to figure out what is real and what is not,” Mitchell said.
Percy Jones, grandfather of 2018 College Graduate Kassidi Jones, said that he thought the speeches were "on-point."
Xu said that this day was special to her because it marked the end of a long journey.
"I finally made it," she said. "I graduated."
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