‘Experiential learning is a way of life’

On Friday morning, Northeastern celebrated the Class of 2012’s rich experiences and stellar accomplishments at the 110th commencement, held at the TD Garden in Boston, where the group of 3,200 graduating seniors was greeted with inspiring remarks from President Joseph E. Aoun and Gen. (Ret.) Colin L. Powell.

Powell, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered a speech to graduates infused with passion and humor, in which he reflected on his own college and life experiences. His remarks touched on his 35 years in the U.S. Army, as well as a range of topics, including the global challenges of our time, the importance of educating America’s youth and the role graduates will play in shaping the world. Powell noted that throughout his life, he’s always found satisfaction through service, and urged graduating seniors to pursue their passions and find their own satisfaction.

“Wherever you go, whatever path you follow, you have been well prepared by the rigorous education you received at Northeastern,” Powell said. “Do something that satisfies you every day, make our society a better place and help your fellow citizens. Give your time and talent in service to others. The need to serve others has never been greater in our nation.”

He encouraged graduates to make their marks on the future of the country and of the world. “Whatever you think of the world right now…it’s going to be yours to shape it,” he said. He also issued a challenge to students looking to respond to the continued economic challenges and political divide facing America: “Don’t stand on the sidelines: vote.”

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Powell added, “The marvelous and famous Northeastern co-op and service programs expose you to the nonacademic world to ground you and connect you to the real world that you will be part of.”

Powell was among an esteemed group of global leaders and innovators receiving honorary degrees at the morning ceremony. The other recipients were: Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation; Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, ME’77, head of President’s Delivery Unit for Development Monitoring and Oversight in Indonesia; and Sy Sternberg, ME’68, chair of the Northeastern University Board of Trustees.

“Each one of you has charted your own path, honed your unique talents,” Aoun said. “Your extraordinary contributions enrich and inspire us all. We are pleased to welcome you to the Northeastern family.” In his address to graduating seniors, Aoun encouraged them to follow three principles that he said have guided him in life: surround yourself with people who are ahead of you; don’t be afraid to scare yourself; and understand that community gives life and meaning to your promise. He also urged students to take advantage of what they’ve learned on co-op, noting this practical, real-world experience “is much more than a valuable skill. At its best, experiential learning is a way of life.”

“Your decisions and your choices will shape your lives and careers,” Aoun said. “In a world of rapid change and at a time of enormous challenges, they will also shape our collective future. We are in your hands.”

Aoun even credited the Class of 2012 with inspiring him to engage with students on Twitter and “become part of the global connectivity that your generation has embraced.”

Emily Batt, a senior physics major who embarked on numerous research endeavors at Northeastern, delivered the student oration to the Class of 2012 that she described as “an industrious, creative, prolific group.” She said by choosing to attend Northeastern, she and her classmates have embraced the importance of experiential learning to meet a future that requires “a skill-set anchored by intellectual exploration, but fortified with practical expertise.”

“At Northeastern, we’ve had the singular opportunity to straddle the line between college life and the real world, and that has imbued in us an appreciation for the complicated imperatives we will face in our future,” she said.

Batt noted the incredible accomplishments her classmates have achieved in areas such as global research, treating illnesses, starting companies, pursuing innovative research, programming robots and producing films. But she also urged graduates to never lose sight of the impact they will have on the lives they intersect.

“When we can perceive our work in the context of the dynamic commitments shaping it — to the individuals involved and to the environment at hand — we can see the richness of our accomplishments, the value of our failures, and excellence of our struggles.”

Throughout the morning, many people offered graduates congratulations via Twitter at the Northeastern commencement hash tag #NU2012. “Congrats to my brother, future doctor,” one person wrote. “Diploma in hand! Officially graduated. Thanks to all who made it happen,” a graduate tweeted.

In his charge to seniors at the conclusion of the morning exercises, Aoun urged graduates to view their degrees as their passports to the world.

“Your degree is your ticket to explore the world and to question what you find. Wherever you are headed, stop and discover new places. Take risks and confront challenges. Explore new ideas and cultures not your own, just as you did here at Northeastern,” said Aoun, who then bounded a beach ball into the sea of graduates.

Later in the day, more than 2,300 students received advanced degrees at an afternoon ceremony in Matthews Arena.

Commencement speaker David S. Ferriero, LA’72, MA’76, the 10th Archivist of the United States, challenged the graduates to make the world a better place by solving problems in need of fresh solutions.

“I encourage you to be bold, create your own opportunities and be persistent,” said Ferriero, who received an honorary doctoral degree in humane letters prior to his speech. “Reflect upon how your new degree can be put to good use locally, nationally and internationally.”

Ferriero — whom Aoun said is “devoted to serving the wise and the curious” — advised students to consider a career in government service.

He noted a study that found that anger, distrust and partisan rancor toward government officials is at an all-time high. “The need for hardworking, caring graduates is great,” Ferriero said. “Your government needs you.”

This year’s commencement celebrations kicked off on Thursday afternoon when Northeastern honored students receiving doctor of philosophy degrees at its inaugural hooding ceremony.

In his welcoming remarks, Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, noted the tremendous accomplishment for the 125 students being conferred degrees on Friday — the largest number in the university’s history.

“I hope all of you graduates will look back at what a special a time this was. Very rarely in our lives do we have the opportunity to devote as much time to a single subject, to a single area of study, as you do as Ph.D. students. I hope you will reflect on this as one of the most rewarding experiences of your lives,” Director said. “You will forever carry the Northeastern name with you.”

In the faculty address, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, reminded students that they have walked in the footsteps of philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and many men and women who’ve forged the knowledge that has shaped Western civilization.

“We are here to celebrate you as a creator of knowledge, and not just a consumer of knowledge,” said Barrett, whose own research involves studying the basis for human emotion. She noted that this road is both “infused with beauty and wrought with frustration and struggle,” adding their work opens the potential for a life filled with tremendous inspiration, transformation and responsibility.

Creating knowledge, she explained, is much more than a personal event; it can also change lives by influencing culture or making an impact on one of their own students one day. “Ideas are powerful. People come and go, but ideas don’t. They inspire acts of greatness,” she said to the crowd in the Cabot Physical Education Center Cage on campus.