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Embrace risk, take responsibility, and change the world

Northeastern University celebrated its 109th commencement on Friday May 6th at TD Garden in Boston, with the pomp and circumstance enlivened by cheers and shout-outs, booming music, flying beach balls and emotional embraces.

Throughout the event, speakers lauded the Class of 2011 for its collective academic achievements and unique global experiences, and challenged seniors to face the unknown future with determination, passion and a broad view of the world.

President Joseph E. Aoun noted that, like many of the 3,200 graduating seniors, he himself arrived on campus five years ago. Since then, Aoun said, Northeastern has become a more diverse campus, while experiential learning opportunities for students abroad have expanded dramatically. As a result, he said students have been empowered to immerse themselves in the world.

“Now, you are poised to begin new journeys in which each of you, in a thousand different ways, will be faced with the distinctive challenge of your generation — creating harmony in a world of ever-increasing diversity,” Aoun said. “It will be your task to find security in the face of conflict, promote health in the face of sickness and assure the sustainability of the planet in the face of scarcity.

“I believe you are ready to meet these challenges, in whatever form they may come. Each of you will have the capacity to make great contributions to the lives of your fellow men and women. The problems of our age may seem daunting, but as innovators and entrepreneurs, you can be the ones to solve them.

Aoun also encouraged students to become global citizens and take risks rather than play it safe.

“Let your passion be the fuel that drives your work – and let your compassion be the force that makes it valuable to the world,” he said.

Henri Termeer, former chief executive officer and chairman of Genzyme Corporation, and Ichiro Fujisaki, Japanese ambassador to the United States, both delivered inspiring speeches to the crowd of 22,000. Termeer called this point in time a “remarkable moment” in which the globe faces enormous challenges and massive population growth in the years ahead.

Termeer told graduates they must step up to confront these challenges, adding that their co-op experiences will give them an edge as they enter the next phase of their lives.

“We have to be bold, and if we are bold, and if we take risks, and if we take responsibility for the risks that we take, in the following years we will change the world,” Termeer said.

Termeer, a pioneer in developing and delivering treatments for rare genetic diseases, was presented with the honorary degree Doctor of Global Business.

Northeastern also presented an honorary degree to Fujisaki on behalf of the people of Japan, in recognition of their extraordinarily courageous response to the earthquake and tsunami that struck their country in March. Fujisaki emphasized the significance of America and the rest of the world in standing by Japan, adding that the country will emerge stronger than ever.

“I am very gratified to be here,” he said. “The people of Japan would really appreciate the idea that they are being recognized by Northeastern.

Also receiving honorary degrees were: Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, president and William T. Golden Chair, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Rev. Dr. Gregory G. Groover Sr., chair, Boston School Committee, and pastor, Historic Charles Street A.M.E. Church; and Bert and John Jacobs, cofounders, Life is good Company.

The “Golden Graduates” in attendance — members of the Class of 1961 —were also recognized.

Student speaker Sarah Tishler, a triple major in international affairs, psychology and French, told her fellow graduates they “are about to take flight” and embark on amazing paths.

“While you can still call yourself an undergraduate, picture the person you want to be in 20 years. I want you to take that vision and believe it,” Tishler said. “In this room are the future curers of cancer, the treaty signers, the industry leaders, the pioneering engineers, the revolutionary thinkers, the inspiring teachers, and so much more. We can and we will do great things, provided we embrace risks, and continue to learn from our successes and failures.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Global Development Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, served as the commencement speaker at the afternoon ceremony for graduates receiving advanced degrees. She emphasized the value of public service and urged students to give back in their own lives — whether through a career, volunteering in the community or finding a way to help a needy child on the other side of the world.

“As you go through life, there are many effective ways to approach and quantify your contribution, but impact on individual people is a powerful lens to keep in mind,” she said.

Burwell, who was awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Philanthropy, also left students with one piece of advice: “Always keep learning, always have fun and always make a difference.”