An Education in Values

We value your experiences and your perspectives precisely because they are different. I had something to contribute because of, not in spite of, being different. So do you.

Address by Amy Gutmann, President, University of Pennsylvania
Delivered at the Third Annual 1vyG: The Inter-Ivy, First-Generation Students’ Conference, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Feb. 17, 2018.
Published in
Vital Speeches in April 2018.

Thank you, Wendell [Pritchett].

Please join me in thanking Candy Alfaro, Anea Moore, and the organizing team!

Welcome to Penn, welcome to Philadelphia! I am so very pleased that 1vyG 2018 is meeting here at Penn.

Just two days ago, Joe Biden and Jeb Bush were here on stage as part of a forum discussing immigration reform. Also on the panel was a recent Penn graduate whose name is Dau Jok. Dau was originally from Sudan.

As a young boy, Dau lost both his father and grandfather in Sudan’s brutal civil war.

At six, he arrived in Des Moines, Iowa, as a refugee with his mother and younger siblings. He grew up in Iowa and came to Penn as a First Gen student. More than anyone else on the panel, Dau understood what it meant to be an outsider coming in. He asked everyone in the audience a question: “Are we doing enough to educate one another and to engage one another on what our values are?”

I welcome you all to Penn this morning as Penn’s president — and more importantly — as someone who, like you, is First Gen. I think Dau’s question — what truly are our core values? — is a question that resonates deeply with anyone who is First Gen. It’s something First Gen students find themselves asking again and again. It’s part of what brings you and me to this conference.

My parents could not go to college. My father did not live to see me go to college. My mother got by on Social Security benefits and a secretary’s salary. She could not pay for me to go to college. I grew up thinking few options were available to me. I had no idea how high I could aim. Just by chance, my family doctor advised me to apply to a great university and to apply for financial aid. When I did, a new world opened up to me.

But it was truly, at times, like in Shakespeare: Oh brave new world that has such people in it!

When I arrived at college I was warned I might be shocked by the brilliance of my fellow classmates. Rather, I was astounded by their wealth and comfort. Parents of a new friend came to town and took us all out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. At the end of the meal they paid with a credit card — I had never before eaten a meal that we had not paid for with cash.

I performed work study in the early mornings before my classes. But I was determined to keep up with my new college friends and stay up late at night. Part of what I remember most of my time as an undergraduate was being perpetually sleep deprived.

I remember as well trying to fit in and missing the mark. I saved up all my money over my pre-frosh summer and bought a suitcase full of new clothes with me. My first day, my first good friend in college took one look at them and said to me — in no uncertain terms — ”These have to go!” I traded them in for two pairs of Levis and a couple of tee shirts.

But most of all what stays with me many years later — what remains the clearest — is those times when my unique experience, when my unique perspective, made a positive difference. When my values were valued. I met peers and I met professors who didn’t care where I came from or how I got there. They cared about the quality of my ideas. Just as importantly, they cared about the passion of my ideals. They cared about my integrity as a person.

This, more than anything, is my message to you today. We value your experiences and your perspectives precisely because they are different. I had something to contribute because of, not in spite of, being different. So do you.

My best friend and my best professors saw value in that. I continue to see tremendous value in that today, and I hope you do too. The meaning of what a truly great university does is captured here in this room. It is so exciting to come face-to-face with the future of a greater nation, a healthier planet, a better world. That’s you.

And that’s why I am so very pleased to welcome you to Penn this morning.

As Penn’s president, I have devoted all my energies and empowered all my devoted team to helping great students like you get to great schools like the ones that you attend.

Here at Penn, when I arrived 1 in 20 students were first-generation. Today, one in eight students arriving at Penn are first-generation. Students who are First Gen or high financial need are now more than a quarter of our incoming class at Penn. And we are determined to do still more. This only became possible when we committed ourselves to increasing access to talented students from every background.

My college experience forever changed my life. Your time at school now will forever change yours. But for everything you receive, you give far and wide something greater still. You ask questions from different perspectives. You drive home the essential point of a truly great education: that it is ultimately an education in values.

You are the newest and greatest pioneers: for your families, and every bit as importantly, for your peers and generations of deserving students who will follow.

Continue to lead.

Let nothing deter you.

And always remember: this is where you truly belong.