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Pomp it up!

Amid rousing cheers and ceremonial flourishes, 2,700 members of Northeastern’s Class of 2009 received their baccalaureate degrees in morning exercises held at Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden on May 1, part of the university’s 107th spring commencement.

The economically uncertain times awaiting the young graduates didn’t dampen the spirit of the day. In fact,commencement speaker Kenneth Cole encouraged his audience to seize a grand opportunity to become “agents of change,” and “reinvent and transform.”

It’s a myth, said the fashion-industry leader and noted social activist, that graduates “are entering the workforce at the worst time in the last 50 years.” Indeed, Cole said, “it may be the best. Only in tough times do we look to reinvent and transform.”

Acknowledging that the global financial crisis has changed the economic landscape, Cole—chairman and chief creative officer of Kenneth Cole Productions, and a champion of such social causes as AIDS research and the provision of homes, jobs, and services to the homeless—asserted that the “future is open to those who embrace and lead it.”

Cole, who is also chairman of the board for amfAR, which is dedicated to AIDS awareness and prevention, advised the young grads to find their own humanitarian calling, both for themselves and, more important, for their communities. “Never before has there been so much broken that needs to be fixed,” he said. ”We all know building our communities is the most viable path to building our own lives. . . . Identify your God-given gifts, find a voice and help others find theirs.”

In his remarks, Northeastern president Joseph Aoun said students should view their degree as their ticket to explore and transform the world. “To do this,” he said, “you must continue to learn about our magnificent planet through education, through travel, through interaction with people from other cultures.”

Northeastern students’ unique educational experiences—which includes co-op, study abroad, the Dialogue of Civilizations program, and other overseas opportunities—give them a unique glimpse into the dynamics of global connectedness that previous generations of students have not had, said Aoun.

“Today, you earned more than a diploma,” Aoun said. “You hold values and sophisticated skills that allow you to succeed in the global world. Treasure them, and use them with confidence.”

Student commencement speaker Brandon Taylor, a biomedical physics major, reminded his classmates of the “handprints” they’ve left on the university and the university has left on them, including specific memories they will carry from their time at Northeastern, such as the Red Sox winning their first World Series since 1918 and President Aoun’s inauguration—even the more understated moments, like making friends with campus food servers.

“I don’t really know many of you, and you may not know me,” Taylor said. “But I realize how little this means now. Even if we’ve never met, we still have more in common than we may think. You all helped shape my life, as I have yours.

“We have to take these lessons, these things we have learned, these memories we’ve made together, and grow with them,” he added.

Taylor echoed Aoun by pointing to Northeastern’s co-op program as the best preparation for the real world. “Today, the real world scares me less,” Taylor said, “because we’ve already been there. With our experience and our passion, we will be the ones to set things into motion.”

A Mount Laurel, N.J., native, Taylor plans to apply to medical school and become an emergency medicine physician and a member of Doctors Without Borders. He’ll get a jump-start on that career this summer while working with a team of orthopedic surgeons in Africa to provide free medical services, such as casting and splinting.

“Brandon Taylor is a shining example of the ambassadorial roles you assume as an alumnus of Northeastern,” said provost Stephen Director during Taylor’s introduction. “The message Brandon sends to the world is one of leadership, passion and fearlessness. That is the Northeastern way—active citizenry with a global perspective.”

In addition to Cole, honorary degrees were also presented to Molly Corbett Broad, the first woman president of the American Council on Education, and Barry Shrage, the president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

The underlying sentiment of the morning was voiced by Cole, who repeated a line he’s become identified with: “It’s great to be known for your shoes, but it’s even better to be known for your soul.”

Later, in an afternoon ceremony held at Matthews Arena, nearly 1,700 students from the graduate schools, the School of Technological Entrepreneurship and the College of Professional Studies received their degrees.

Afternoon commencement speaker Gary Gottlieb, president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and president-elect of Partners HealthCare, said that many of the challenges today’s graduates face mirror the issues his parents’ generation confronted in the 1930s: unemployment, poverty and homelessness.

Despite these hurdles, Gottlieb said, he’s optimistic the new crop of graduates will become our country’s “greatest generation.”

“While the current economic climate will try your patience,” he said, “you will hone your skills and help us . . . rebuild some of the bridges to the world that have eroded.”

At the afternoon exercises, the university presented an honorary doctorate to Gottlieb, as well as to Angela Menino, first lady of the City of Boston, and J. Keith Motley, Ed’78, MEd’81, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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