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Social activist Geoffrey Canada speaks at Penn’s 256th Commencement ceremony.

Credit: Steven Minicola

Addressing Penn’s graduating Class of 2012, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone Geoffrey Canada asked, “Do you care about those who won’t make it without real help?”

“You are graduating at a time when our country is desperate for highly educated women and men. Complex issues hang over our heads like a giant laden weight,” Canada said, referring to poverty, violence and education inequalities.

While past Commencement speakers like actor Denzel Washington have urged students to “be open to life” or seek out their passions, Canada put a unique spin to his advice. Using “game” as a metaphor for life, he urged students to use their skills and intellect to make an impact on those who are less fortunate than themselves.

“The team that says every man for himself … is winning. Our team, the team that values the common good … is losing,” Canada said. “And yet, I offer you this wondrous opportunity to join the losing team.”

Canada claimed that the winning team offers money, power, luxury cars and fancy vacations, but the losing team offers honesty and “a good night’s sleep.”

Canada’s words were met with clamorous applause from the audience and students, as well as a standing ovation by the end of his Commencement address.

“If this be the last time, let’s go down fighting. We will win,” he closed.

Penn President Amy Gutmann shared a similar view of working as a team. She said that students have found their creativity by connecting to others. “You are truly the collaboration generation,” she said, referring to Penn founder Benjamin Franklin, who believed people from different backgrounds solve problems faster than brilliant individuals working alone.

“If you are all wrapped up in yourself, you make a very small bundle,” Gutmann said. “Go forth, collaborate, change it for the better and rejoice in doing so as we rejoice in you!”

Graduates and parents were very happy with how smoothly Commencement proceeded.

“I liked the speeches by everyone,” Wharton and Engineering graduate Manish Agarwal said.

Despite the political nature of Canada’s speech, many graduates agreed with his views.

“With all of the privileges that we have, in terms of our family and being able to afford such an education … it gives us a lot of responsibility,” Agarwal said. “I completely agree with him, and I think it was something that we needed to hear.”

Kazz Yang, who received a master’s degree in Architecture, agreed, adding that “once we limit our desire and devote ourselves to helping people without any reimbursement, that is the purest part we can find inside our souls.”

College graduate Garvin Hunt took a different view of Canada’s message. “The majority of the people that try to help out and that give everything they have usually don’t have as much as people that work on Wall Street,” he said. “I feel like a lot of people have those nice cars because they put themselves first and don’t give to others like Geoffrey Canada does.”

Speakers at other Penn graduation ceremonies included former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who spoke at the Law School ceremony, as well as best-selling author and Penn professor Paul Hendrickson, who delivered the Commencement address for the School of Arts and Sciences.

Honorary degrees were awarded to Canada, as well as Central Intelligence Agency director and retired United States Army General David Petraeus, civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga), Penn computer science professor Ruzena Bajcsy, Japanese biochemist Akira Endo, mathematician Peter Lax and playwright Anna Deavere Smith.


GALLERY: Commencement 2012

Slideshow: A decade of graduation speakers

Geoffrey Canada chosen as graduation speaker

Penn to award seven honorary degrees

Denzel urges Class of 2011 to ‘be open to life’

Slideshow: Commencement 2011

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