Commencement 2017: ‘Use Your Freedom Well’

In an academic year roiled by political turmoil in American government, Penn President Amy Gutmann and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker charged Penn’s graduating Class of 2017 with making meaningful choices in their lives and exhibiting kindness and decency each and every day.

In her welcome address at the University’s 261st Commencement, held May 15 in Franklin Field, Gutmann told graduates that they have “enormous freedom, more so than anyone who’s gone before.” She asked them what they’ll use their freedom of choice to do and told them about choices her family made that led her to where she is today.

“I am the child of a refugee. ... When my father made the fateful choice to flee his home, he faced a decision shared by refugees everywhere: save just oneself or try to save others? In places such as Syria or in the path of Boko Haram, we see it. In the inferno of war and genocide, the choice is so often excruciating. His siblings, his parents, and others—my father helped not just himself, but all of them escape. His choice made the worlds of many possible. His choice made my world possible.”

Gutmann urged graduates to “find the path … save a life … serve a cause … seek the sublime” and to “use your freedom well, for you will be defined by the choices you make.”

Upon conferring an honorary degree upon Booker, Gutmann said, "we are all inspired by your unshakeable belief that each of us can be a catalyst for change.”

Booker, a former Newark, N.J. City Council member and mayor, is the first African-American U.S. senator to represent New Jersey. Booker has been a frequent critic of the Trump administration and has opposed the Executive Order temporarily banning people entering the United States from six Muslim-majority countries.

In his address, Booker shared stories of small acts of kindness that changed lives, urging graduates to use their “moral imagination” and “creative compassion” to make positive changes in the world.

“We have such power that we do not use as we go about our big challenges, our big goals, our desires to make big differences—we forget the power we have right now,” Booker said. “We can never allow our inability to do everything to undermine our determination to do something.

“Our real power is not necessarily to change the world,” Booker added, “but to make a world of change to the people we encounter every day.”

Tanvi Ahuja expressed admiration for Booker. “I read up on him. He’s someone who is influential. It’s good to hear from people who have that kind of reach, who have accomplished so much with their life,” she said as she hurried with her family to take photos on campus. A member of Rangoli, the Indian Association at Penn, Ahuja graduated with her master's from the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Her father, Gautam Ahuja, said his father came to this country to earn a doctorate and now it has come full circle with his daughter, who he wanted “to get into the best school she could get into, so naturally it had to be Penn.”

Ahuja said he felt on top of the world, a sentiment shared by Penn grandparent and Class of 1951 alumnus David Baylinson. He came to Penn as a freshman 70 years ago, returning only now to see his grandson, Max Levy, graduate. Levy, a communication and public service major from Atlanta, was the flagbearer at the beginning of the procession.

Themes of freedom and choice were topics of speeches as well as conversations during Commencement.

Grace Johnson, who was getting her master’s degree from the School of Social Policy & Practice, said: “November was a really hard month for a lot of us. We had a lot of dialogue about it. We talked about the election and the ramifications, pretty much in all my classes. We all had internships, so working with our clients, people in Philadelphia, it was challenging to deal with it as professionals and also personally. “

“I just gave hugs to two students whose parents could not be here because they were afraid to get on an airplane and be deported,” said Luz Marin, a program coordinator at the Alice Paul Center for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Marin was standing along Locust Walk to cheer the graduates on as they made their way to Franklin Field. 

In the procession, many graduates found ways to stand out from the crowd. Simple mortarboard messages of years past, such as “Hi Mom” or “I Need a Job” spelled out in masking tape, were replaced with silk flowers and elaborate architectural masterpieces of paper buildings. Penn Dental Medicine grads hoisted a giant toothbrush above their heads, while Perelman School of Medicine graduates carried an oversized stethoscope and those from the School of Veterinary Medicine waved inflated arm-length latex examining gloves.

Before delivering the keynote address, Booker received an honorary doctor of laws. The six other honorary degree recipients were Isabel Allende, writer, journalist, and women’s rights activist; Clara Franzini-Armstrong, emerita professor of cell and developmental biology in the Perelman School of Medicine; Terry Gross, host and co-executive producer of NPR’s “Fresh Air”; Ada Sue Hinshaw, inaugural director of the National Institute of Nursing Research; Robert P. Moses, founder and president of The Algebra Project; and writer Paul Muldoon, Princeton University professor and poetry editor at The New Yorker.

One of Gutmann’s messages to members of the Class of 2017 was imparted in the Commencement program booklets: “Penn brought the world to our graduates. They now go forth to bring Penn to the world.”

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Penn President Amy Gutmann (seated) and (clockwise from left) Clara Franzini-Armstrong, emerita professor of cell and developmental biology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine; Robert P. Moses, founder and president of The Algebra Project; David L. Cohen, chair of Penn’s Board of Trustees; Cory Booker, Democratic U.S. Senator for New Jersey; Paul Muldoon, Princeton University professor and poetry editor at The New Yorker; Andrea Mitchell, alumna and Penn trustee; Isabel Allende, writer, journalist, and women's rights activist; Terry Gross, host and co-executive producer of NPR’s “Fresh Air”; and Ada Sue Hinshaw, inaugural director of the National Institute of Nursing Research.

  • Text by Jacquie Posey
  • Photos by Scott Spitzer, Steve Minicola, and Eddy Marenco
  • Video by Rebecca Abboud, Denise Henhoeffer, and Penn Video Network