This is the column I was never supposed to write. I purposefully planned my last column so I could address graduation speakers without doing a post-mortem whine on whomever the University chose to have address my dear Class of 2010. After four years of reading and editing the editorial page, one of my cardinal rules is, “Don’t touch grad speakers after they’re announced.” It is almost always a bad idea.
Then, barely 12 hours after my column detailing my grad-speaker wish list went live, the University announced that Penn alumnus, former governor of Utah and current ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Jr., would be addressing graduates come May 17. And suddenly, people I don’t know very well are coming up to me, leaning in and saying, “All of your choices would have been a better choice. This is so disappointing. What do you think?”
In an attempt to be enigmatic and mysterious and writerly (and also, like any good columnist, with circulation numbers and hit counts in mind), I would reply, “I’m actually writing about this again on Monday now, so check that out. But what do you think?”
After a couple dozen informal interviews with friends, acquaintances, readers and just people around campus (and monitoring Facebook and Twitter), I think I can safely say I’m with the majority of students: It’s a bit of a letdown. It feels a bit like an easy and obvious choice. But I also think that Huntsman as a speaker has tremendous potential, and anybody carrying around actual anger about it really needs to take a breath.
It’s painfully easy to break down both sides of this debate. On the University’s side is an extraordinarily accomplished alumnus whose family regularly showers love on Penn and has an extremely high profile on campus. And on the students’ side is the prevailing sentiment that if Huntsman’s dad wasn’t Huntsman he wouldn’t have been chosen. That he hadn’t earned it.
Earning things is a hugely important part of the Penn DNA (going all the way back, like everything here, to Ben Franklin), and it hurts when that’s violated. At Penn, we do more with less, we work hard and play hard and we earn our success the hard way. There’s a mentality that we’re insanely tough and work insanely hard.
For me and a lot of students, Penn has been a validation of what’s possible: We came from comfortable, albeit unremarkable, backgrounds, and Penn has been this four-year-long lesson on how to live a life without limits. We’ve learned how to pull actual all-nighters; how to stand up for things we believe in; how to be passionate about things that, just four years ago, we had no idea existed. It’s meant working harder than we ever thought possible to reach heights we never dreamed of. So when we’re given a graduation speaker whose family gave us the gift of Huntsman Hall — even if the speaker has been successful — it brings forth a lot of connotations that we don’t want associated with our Penn: deal-making, old money, architecture that’s blatant in its symbolism, you name it.
But to focus on those aspects is to ignore one of the biggest lessons we’re supposed to derive from higher education, particularly one learned at Penn: that everyone deserves respect, and, given two seconds of your time, that everyone is surprising and interesting. From professors to friends to colleagues to random students in any class, the one thing that’s been consistent in my college experience is that everyone lucky enough to be affiliated with the University is interesting, insightful and inspiring — period. So when I’m asked if I’m looking forward to the speaker, now I say, “Yeah. I really, really am.” After all, he went to Penn. Alyssa Schwenk is a College senior from Ottumwa, Iowa. She is the former Editorial Page Editor of the DP and editor of The Report Card. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. That’s What Schwenk Said appears on Mondays.Comments powered by Disqus
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