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President Aoun to graduates: ‘Go against the grain’

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

David Muir, an award-winning journalist and anchor for ABC’s flagship evening news program, concluded his Commencement address to Northeastern University graduates on Friday with a powerful statement. He pointed his smartphone toward the crowd and started a Periscope broadcast. “You’re on live. Tell the world you’re coming,” Muir told graduates, who roared with excitement.

The thrilling moment was among many at Northeastern’s 113th Commencement exercises, which were held at TD Garden in Boston and served as a celebration of the 2015 graduating class’ great journey and outstanding accomplishments. As part of the pomp and circumstance, the university awarded honorary degrees to a distinguished group of influential leaders, public figures, and scholars: Muir, anchor of ABC World News Tonight with David Muir; Lawrence S. Bacow, president emeritus of Tufts University; Vanessa Bradford Kerry, co-founder and CEO of Seed Global Health; and Gabriel Jaramillo, former chairman, president, and CEO at Santander Holdings USA.

President Joseph E. Aoun swats a beach ball into the crowd after delivering his charge to graduates at the undergraduate Commencement ceremony at TD Garden in Boston. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

President Joseph E. Aoun swats a beach ball into the crowd after delivering his charge to graduates at the undergraduate Commencement ceremony at TD Garden in Boston. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

In his remarks, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun urged the graduates to “go against the grain” to follow their passions, take risks, and learn from their global experiences. He shared how this advice has impacted his own journey. While his friends growing up were studying to be doctors, engineers, lawyers, and business leaders, Aoun was pursuing his passion and studying linguistics. That journey took him from his native country to Europe and then to America—and he never looked back.

“I went against the grain, and I never regretted it,” Aoun said.

“Graduates, sometimes you will find that the established wisdom is unwise for you. Sometimes you will find that choosing the road less traveled makes all the difference. In these moments, go against the grain.”

Aoun highlighted the achievements of several graduates who have already done just that. Molly Runkle, SSH’15, was driven to help victims of abuse and violence in the U.S., delving into the issue’s deepest depths on co-op with Bumi Sehat, a renowned women’s health clinic in Indonesia.

When Shivangi Shah, SSH’15, heard about a national imperative to recruit more women into the science, math, and engineering fields, she co-founded Genius Box, which delivers science kits to kids’ homes.

And when the bombs went off at the 2013 Boston Marathon, Shores Salter, S’15, sprinted toward the chaos rather than running from it. He took off his belt and used it as a tourniquet to save a woman’s life.

Aoun closed his address by noting that in today’s world of instant communication and the Internet, the lure of the herd mentality is growing stronger. But rather than following others by clicking “like” on a popular social media post, he urged graduates to resist the pull of “groupthink.”

“The actions that spring from our deepest impulses to laugh, cry, love, and help are so much more powerful than clicks,” he said. “No matter how big the crowd, you can always choose to go against the grain. In doing so, seek to transform yourselves and transform the world.”

Graduates put on their Commencement pins at the undergraduate ceremony. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

Graduates put on their Commencement pins at the undergraduate ceremony. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

Embracing fear was another powerful theme throughout the morning ceremony. Muir opened his Commencement address by urging graduates to welcome—not ignore—the fear of what follows graduation. He shared stories from his life in which he has faced and embraced his own fears, moments that included his first day of kindergarten and his salad days as a TV news reporter. He was 21, he recalled, working the phones in the newsroom, when a veteran reporter piped up and told him to get out of the office to find the story.

“It was sage advice,” Muir said, “and I’ve been out there ever since.”

Muir noted that several significant moments in his professional career have come while living in Boston. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was working for the ABC affiliate WCVB-TV when he received a phone call informing him that the first hijacked plane had struck the World Trade Center towers. It was also in Boston when Muir received another call—an offer to work at ABC News in New York.

He described his experiences of being dispatched to cover disasters and hot spots all across the globe, where he’s covered many high-profile stories throughout his distinguished career. These include reporting from the Superdome as Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans; Fukushima, Japan, after the tsunami and nuclear incident; and Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution.

While reporting from Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, Muir vividly recalled a female demonstrator who was surrounded by people shouting at her. She had been urging other young people to fight for their freedom and using social media as her voice.

“Years later, when I hear people talk about how trivial a tweet can be or how fleeting a post on social media can be, I think to that young woman who did not take it for granted,” Muir said. “She knew the power of every word. And she was using it—to fight through her fear.”

Muir told the graduates that they too have a voice—as well as a responsibility to use it for those who are unable to use theirs.

Christie Civetta, SSH’15, who received her bachelor’s degree in human services, delivered the student Commencement address. She too delved into the theme of overcoming fear. She recalled traveling 7,803 miles out of her comfort zone to Cape Town, South Africa, for her first co-op, in which she worked with a family preservation organization to help with counseling and drug abuse prevention.

Civetta experienced remarkable personal growth over her six-month experiential learning opportunity, and since then has sought many other opportunities to engage with the Northeastern and Greater Boston communities. These include being a member of the Northeastern Powerlifting club team and running a marathon on the Great Wall of China to raise money for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

“These experiences are a part of my own unique Northeastern story, just as each of you has a narrative that is equally as meaningful and equally as personal to who you’ve become,” Civetta said. “I believe the core of a Northeastern education lies in pushing all of us to challenge ourselves through risk and experience, ultimately providing each student with their unique story—and for this, I am eternally grateful.”

She urged her fellow graduates to “keep moving forward, keep pushing yourself, and keep taking chances.”

A student holds up her diploma at the undergraduate Commencement ceremony. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

A student holds up her diploma at the undergraduate Commencement ceremony. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

After students received their diplomas, Aoun issued his charge to graduates. He noted that this year’s honorary degree recipients are impressive role models who embody the value of global, entrepreneurial experience and who prove the value of going against the grain.

“Now it is your turn,” Aoun said. “Go against the grain. Think for yourselves. Don’t mistake popularity for truth or beauty. Take risks in pursuit of your passion. Explore the world. Be entrepreneurial and define your own path to success. Help others.

“Northeastern has shaped you, and it will always be your home. Now it is up to you to shape the world. We are in your hands.”

Many moments throughout the undergraduate Commencement ceremony led to spontaneous outbursts of cheering and applause. Students roared when a video played at the beginning of the ceremony showed frigid imagery of Boston’s historic spate of winter snowstorms, and graduates later stood and waved to their families and friends, thanking them for their help in reaching this milestone.

Other memorable moments included performances by Samantha Creighton, S’15, who sang the national anthem, and the Nor’easters, Northeastern’s award-winning a cappella group.

During the ceremony, Aoun acknowledged the success and leadership of Stephen W. Director, who is completing his seventh and final year as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. Aoun also recognized the Golden Graduates in attendance—alumni representatives of the Class of 1965.

G. Wayne Clough, the secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and president emeritus of the Georgia Institute of Technology, delivers his address at the graduate Commencement ceremony at Matthews Arena. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

G. Wayne Clough, the secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and president emeritus of the Georgia Institute of Technology, delivers his address at the graduate Commencement ceremony at Matthews Arena. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

Later in the day, some 3,000 students received advanced degrees at a ceremony in Matthews Arena.

In his remarks, graduate ceremony Commencement speaker G. Wayne Clough challenged the graduates to marshal their sagacity and intellectual acumen to tackle today’s biggest problems. Clough—who received an honorary doctorate of engineering and humane letters—pointed in particular to the scourge of climate change, global pandemics, and the education gap between the nation’s haves and have-nots, all of which he described as unprecedented challenges involving the fate of both our species and our planet.

“I am an optimist and believe those of you leaving this campus today are ready to take on the issues your world faces no matter how large,” said Clough, the secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and president emeritus of the Georgia Institute of Technology. “In your future roles as teachers, scholars, entrepreneurs, engineers, politicians, and presidents, I know you will use your first-rate intelligence and wisdom to take on what may seem hopeless, implausible, or impossible and make them otherwise. Make your children and grandchildren proud, as proud as we are of you today.”

A graduate student reacts to receiving her diploma at the afternoon Commencement ceremony. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

A graduate student reacts to receiving her diploma at the afternoon Commencement ceremony. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

Aoun’s charge to the advanced degree recipients echoed his directive to the undergraduates who received their diplomas earlier in the day.

“Those who go against the grain sometimes change the world,” Aoun said. “You are in a rare position to do this. You have mastered your disciplines. Use this learning not merely to accept the received wisdom. Use it to create new wisdom for our times.”

Staff writer and editor Jason Kornwitz contributed to this story.

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