Adaptable, resilient, persistent: These are traits that enable the paramecium, a single-cell organism, to make its way in life. They’re also qualities that many 2020 and 2021 graduates have had to rely upon to navigate the last two years.
On Sunday, May 22, at the long-awaited, in-person Commencement celebration of those graduates-slash-alumni, speaker Angela Duckworth invoked the humble paramecium to convey a message about the importance of exploration and persistence.
“The brainless paramecium survives and thrives and it does so using one basic principle: If things are getting better, keep swimming in that direction, and if not, change course,” said Duckworth, the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor in the School of Arts & Sciences and the Wharton School.
“The paramecium gets stuck, well, it simply backs up and tries another angle. It happens again, it backs up and makes another pivot. If this keeps happening, the paramecium may have to do something more radical, even do a 180. But eventually, kind of like a Roomba vacuum, the paramecium finds a way to move forward again.”
In the spring of 2020, pandemic restrictions necessitated that the 264th Commencement be celebrated online, offering students a safe but special way to mark their metamorphosis from Penn student into alum. Then in 2021, for the 265th Commencement, while graduating seniors were able to toss their caps into the air at Franklin Field, graduate students again made do with a webcast.
Sunday was their chance to make up for that missed milestone.
Many of the alums in attendance are likely already familiar with this strategy of exploration, having, like the paramecium, encountered obstacles in their path, made shifts, and continued on to new pursuits. Penn Today spoke with Emily Gardner from Penn Vet's Class of 2020, who returned to campus for Commencement, about her experiences since graduating, and what coming back to Penn means to her:
The start of 2020 was an exciting time for Emily Gardner and her peers—then-fourth year students at the School of Veterinary Medicine. They were getting results back on their board exams, finding out where they matched for internships, and ready to start the final rotations of their degree.
“I remember thinking, ‘It’s all downhill from here,’” she says. “I felt like everything was going so well.”
Amidst the celebrations and final rotations, there were also rumblings of COVID-19. In mid-March, lightning-fast, things shifted, and Gardner and her fellow students found themselves stuck at home. Among other missed milestones, she says, not having the opportunity to be in person for graduation “definitely was a big loss.”
The two years of the pandemic held more challenges for Gardner. In June 2020, just a week into her internship—at her top choice, a small animal emergency and specialty hospital in Pittsburgh—she was involved in a head-on car accident that left her with serious injuries and kept her from working for four months.
“I was really determined not to let the accident stop me from carrying out my plan, doing something that I had always wanted to do, that was going to make me a better doctor,” she says. She did just that, completing her internship in October 2021.
Now in a position at a different practice in Pittsburgh, where she cares for dogs, cats, as well as more exotic creatures (“snakes, rabbits, ferrets, bearded dragons, birds of all kinds”), Gardner is grateful for the chance to mark the culmination of her veterinary education, albeit two years late.
“I think this is going to be a really good moment to come back and have that moment of celebration and accomplishment and closure,” Gardner says.