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Graduates urged to empower others, impact the world

Graduating seniors celebrate at Northeastern's 112th commencement exercises.

Northeastern celebrated the Class of 2014 and presented honorary degrees to a group of influential leaders and scholars on Friday morning during the undergraduate ceremony of the university’s 112th commencement exercises. The celebration was held at TD Garden in Boston before some 20,000 students, university leaders, faculty, staff, family, and friends.

Northeastern presented honorary degrees to Janet Napolitano, the former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security who is now president of the University of California; award-winning entertainment icon LL COOL J; and former NFL player Wade Davis II, who is currently the executive director of the You Can Play Project, an organization dedicated to ending discrimination, sexism, and homophobia in sports.

Several prominent and powerful themes emerged during the commencement addresses. Graduates were urged to chart their own paths, empower themselves and others, and strive to make a difference in the world.

Last year Northeastern launched its historic $1 billion Empower campaign. In his address, President Joseph E. Aoun asked graduates to reflect on those who empowered them at Northeastern: faculty, staff, peers, mentors, and friends. “Through them, you have become empowered. And in turn, you, too, have empowered people,” he said.

Aoun singled out several graduating seniors for their accomplishments, which included working on health initiatives around the world, starting entrepreneurial ventures, and engaging in public service at the White House. He told graduates that opportunities for them to empower others would only grow larger after graduation.

“Consider the great things left undone: the redemption of our natural environment; the resolution of poverty and injustice; the quest for greater peace in our time,” Aoun said. “So much music remains unwritten. So much art remains uncreated. So many mysteries of humanity, nature, and the cosmos remain unsolved.

“One day, they will be solved—because you will solve them.”

President Joseph E. Aoun addresses graduates at commencement.

President Joseph E. Aoun addresses graduates at commencement. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

The excitement was palpable throughout commencement. Graduates cheered and embraced, beach balls soared, and flashes from proud parents’ cameras flickered throughout the room. The Nor’easters—the award-winning student a capella group—delivered rousing performances, and at one point they were joined by LL COOL J.

Throughout the ceremony, graduates, attendees, and others watching online expressed their exhilaration and congratulations on Twitter with the hashtag #NU2014, which was trending nationwide.

During the ceremony, Northeastern also recognized the Golden Graduates in attendance—alumni representatives of the Class of 1964.

The audience also roared for the three honorary degree recipients who were hailed for their achievements: Napolitano as “exemplar of service to our nation, transformative leader in education, standard bearer of the common good;” LL COOL J as a “trailblazing performing artist, devoted mentor and benefactor, cultural icon;” and Davis, as a “selfless champion for inclusion, courageous advocate, true hero of sport.”

In her commencement address, Napolitano noted the students’ many accomplishments during their time at Northeastern, including on co-op—which she called “one of the nationally recognized hallmarks of a Northeastern education.” After graduation, in whatever endeavors graduates pursue, Napolitano said that was matters most is “not about how much you make, it’s whether you make a difference.”

“You don’t go to college so you can punch a clock. You go to college so that you can be in a position to make a difference,” she said.

In pursuing these endeavors, Napolitano offered graduates one guiding principle: “Beware the tyranny of the straight line.”

To illustrate her point, she described sailboats skimming the whitecaps on Boston Harbor, noting they all share one important characteristic: they don’t glide in a straight line. Rather, they zigzag, and in doing so they go forward.

“In 2064, when you’re wearing a golden robe and you return to Northeastern for your 50th reunion, my hope for you is that you will look back on the decades that have passed and see the twists and turns—the tacking—that are the hallmark of a well lived life.”

She said her own journey has taken a serpentine route—from working as a private attorney, to running for political office and being elected governor of Arizona, to serving in President Obama’s cabinet and now as president of the University of California. “It’s been an exhilarating ride,” she said, “and I would not have traded it for all the foresight and predictability in the world.”

To graduates, she offered this piece of advice: “Stay alert to the opportunities—especially the unexpected ones—that will move you forward.”

Graduates listen as Janet Napolitano, former U.S. Secretary of State and now the president of the University of California, delivers the commencement address.

Graduates listen as Janet Napolitano, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and now the president of the University of California, delivers the commencement address. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

For her part, the student commencement speaker Emily Izzo, SSH’14, an international affairs and cultural anthropology combined major, delivered a passionate and inspiring speech to her fellow graduates.

Izzo began by thanking her parents for instilling in her the knowledge that her future was in her hands. At Northeastern, Izzo said, she and her peers have been afforded limitless opportunities spanning countries, disciplines, and cultures to chart their own paths. She urged graduates to use the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired at Northeastern to achieve great things and pursue solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.

“Today it is our turn to step up and bring all of our extraordinary talents and experiences out into the world, because what we’ve accomplished here means nothing if we do not dedicate ourselves to solving all the global issues we’ve studied so diligently, and perhaps railed against so passionately, for the last four or five years.”

The Class of 2014, she said, is bound for great achievements. “Having known you and the esteemed professors and leaders whose collective experience we have all benefitted from, I feel assured that every problem has a solution; that every stalemate is eventually broken; and that, above all, people, with their myriad experiences and quirks, newfangled theories and crazy pipedreams, are those solutions.

“So listen to each other’s stories. Do not fear what is foreign. And above all, push your horizon out farther than ever before.”

At the end of the morning ceremony, the audience cheered as graduates moved the tassels on their graduation caps—many of which were decorated with messages and bold colors—from the right to the left side: They were officially graduates of the Class of 2014.

In closing remarks, Aoun issued his charge to the newest group of Northeastern alumni: “As you continue on your paths to empowerment, remember that this journey is not only about you but also it is about the impact you will make on the world. As you embark on your journeys, Northeastern will always be a guiding star for you. It will always be your home. Graduates, I salute you.”

More than 3,500 undergraduates received their degrees at commencement.

More than 3,500 undergraduates received their degrees at commencement. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Later in the day, more than 1,500 students received advanced degrees at a ceremony in Matthews Arena.

Victor J. Dzau, the president and CEO of Duke University Health System and the incoming president of the Institute of Medicine, delivered the graduate ceremony commencement address.

“Our speaker this afternoon is a true innovator in healthcare,” said Aoun of Dzau. “As a pioneer in the field of vascular medicine and genetics, he worked on important breakthroughs in gene therapy and stem cell biology.”

In his remarks, Dzau urged the graduates to follow their passion in order to achieve success. “Over time, if you follow your passion, adapt to changing circumstances, and leave a trail of enhancement in your life and work, success will find you,” Dzau explained.

Now that they are armed with credentials from Northeastern, Dzau encouraged the graduates to be the change agents that could bring clean waters to those in the world who don’t have it, or discover new approaches to delivering healthcare.

“The world is full of challenges and problems that need your help,” he said. “Do something about these problems.”

Prior to his speech, Dzau received an honorary doctor of science. Donald G. Comb, founder and chairman of the board of New England Biolabs and founder of the Ocean Genome Legacy, received an honorary doctor of science.

Victor J. Dzau, president and CEO of Duke University Health System, was the the commencement speaker at the graduate ceremony, where he also received an honorary doctor of science. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Victor J. Dzau, president and CEO of Duke University Health System, was the the commencement speaker at the graduate ceremony, where he also received an honorary doctor of science. Photo by Mariah Tauger.