Launching the “geniuses of this revolutionary age”

Amid the bouncing of beach balls, tossing of caps, and the cheers of some 2,900 graduates and their families and friends, “leadership” and the Class of 2010’s readiness to don that mantle, was the theme of Northeastern University’s 108th commencement on Friday morning at TD Garden in Boston.

In his commencement address, Kenneth I. Chenault, chairman and chief executive officer of American Express Company, told graduates they have an obligation to lead their generation as they face the challenges ahead, including the tough economy. But in doing so, Chenault said they would have an advantage as the “global citizens” they have become thanks to their experiential learning opportunities — the cornerstone of education at Northeastern.

(Watch Kenneth I.Chenault’s commencement address)

“Your education and your actions tell me that you are ready — ready to fulfill the obligation to be leaders, ready to meet the challenge of shaping society, and ready to change the world. Congratulations. I can’t wait to see what you do next,” said Chenault, who is known for his own leadership qualities, in civic affairs as well as in business.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun— who playfully launched a beach ball into the crowd near the end of his remarks — told seniors that their experiential learning opportunities would prove invaluable as they graduate in this “time of true revolutions” worldwide. He pointed to advancements in health care technology and the rise of social media as a key communications tool, as well as to the global economic collapse and a wave of natural disasters — all changes that occurred during the Class of 2010’s time at Northeastern.

“I know what many of you are thinking right now,” the president said. “You’re sitting there wondering: What do these revolutions have to do with me? Think of it this way: Revolutions need revolutionaries. This is where your generation comes in. You are the ‘geniuses’ of this revolutionary age. You will lead the way.” Earlier, Aoun had referenced the 1780 quote from Abigail Adams, “These are the times in which a genius would wish to live.”

(Watch President Aoun’s commencement speech)

The student speaker, international business major Michael Paradiso, recalled finding inspiration in others while on campus and abroad. He mentioned his fellow students, who aided the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina and following the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, as well as those he met through learning experiences in China and Brazil, who started school programs for youths in need.

In that same spirit, Paradiso challenged his fellow seniors to be “pioneers” and “game-changers” after college and urged them not only to be inspired but to also to inspire others.

“I believe that as Northeastern graduates, we are going to do great things,” he said. “Not because it is our destiny, but because we have worked hard and taken advantage of the opportunities that sent us beyond the confines of our Huntington Avenue classrooms into the world.“

In addition to Chenault, the University conferred honorary degrees on Vartan C. Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York; and on Victoria Reggie Kennedy, wife of the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, a leading advocate for battered women, at-risk youth, and the homeless, and against gun violence.

The “golden graduates” from the Class of 1960 who were in attendance were also recognized at commencement.

Later, in an afternoon ceremony held at Matthews Arena, more than 1,350 students from the graduate schools were awarded advanced degrees.

Afternoon commencement speaker Jagdish Natwarlal Bhagwati, a world-renowned economist and a chief proponent of free trade, urged the University’s newest graduates to use their Northeastern education as a launching pad to go beyond a life of self-interest by making a difference in both the local and global community.

“Doing good does not only mean working at soup kitchens, or in Africa for the Peace Corps or mentoring an inner city kid,” said Bhagwati, who is currently a University Professor at Columbia University and Senior Fellow in International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It means using your knowledge acquired at Northeastern to do good.”

He touched on many of the challenges that face today’s graduates, such as cleaning up the environment and finding cures for infectious diseases. But he expressed confidence that the newest crop of graduates is prepared to make significant humanitarian contributions — regardless of area of interest.

“Knowledge and the practice of virtue are the two pillars on which life must rest,” he said. “If you do that, you will turn into model citizens that even the Founding Fathers would have been proud of.”

At the afternoon exercises, the University presented an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree to Bhagwati.