For our newly minted alumni, yesterday marks the high point of Alumni Weekend and Commencement at Penn, and the ceremony on Franklin Field is the crown jewel. In their last footfalls as students, they process from Hamilton Village (aka Superblock), over the 38th Street Bridge and onto Locust Walk. Penn Staff and West Philadelphia neighbors await the procession and congratulate the marchers along their way.
Starting at 36th Street, Penn Alumni, ranging from our most venerable to most recent, line Locust Walk to represent the over 270,000 living graduates of the University in welcoming the class of 2011 into this great network with “all the rights, privileges and responsibilities which pertain to [their] degrees.” The class continues to the stadium cheered on by their professors who laud them for their years of diligent work that brought them to this day. Finally, they enter Franklin Field and are greeted by the warm loving roar of applause from their parents, spouses, partners, family and friends. Each one is a rock star, walking on the stage for the thrill of their lives.
Steeped with history and tradition, the ceremony starts solemnly with convocation and the singing of the National Anthem. Dr. Gutmann delivers her Commencement Address, giving a top ten list of lessons learned from the movies (don’t be surprised if I make this an upcoming Top Penn list post), and the Provost announces the recipients of various teaching awards and student honors. Between the conferral of degrees honoris causa and the degrees from the 12 schools of the University, Denzel Washington, HON’11, PAR’13, delivers a very poignant Commencement speech full of charm, modesty, humor, sincerity and sage advice.
Mr. Washington admits that he is nervous to be in front of a crowd of thousands of people. He is used to knowing that millions of people watch him all the time – in movies – but when thousands of people can watch him as he can see them as well; he admits that he’s afraid of making a fool of himself. This launches him into lesson of his address is: Fall Forward. In order to succeed, each of us needs to embrace our failures. Since if we don’t fail, we’re not trying. Therefore, if you are going to fall, fall forward to see where you are going and find a way to continue in that direction after you fall.
Mr. Washington shares with the crowd his personal experience with failure before his success with an amusing and charismatic story of his first audition for a Broadway musical. Not being a singer and unable to navigate the larger-than-life styling of musical acting, he is not called back. Yet, Mr. Washington muses, “if you hang around a barber shop long enough, sooner or later, you’re going to get a haircut.” This practical pearl of wisdom emphasized both the secret to his success as well as the advice for our alumni: failure is inevitable, but success is not. Even Edison failed a thousand times before his 1001st experiment gave the world the light bulb.
As with all things Penn, the ceremony ends with the singing of the Red and Blue, and true to the etymology of the word, commencement, it becomes the first Proud Penn activity that the graduates start as the new class of amazing Penn Alumni.