Graduates called to ‘transcend boundaries,’ address global challenges

Read a transcript of Commencement speaker U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s address.

Northeastern University celebrated its 114th Commencement on Friday at TD Garden in Boston, where graduates were recognized for their many achievements, urged by President Joseph E. Aoun to “transcend boundaries” in their careers, and challenged by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry to use the “global vision” they acquired at Northeastern to tackle the world’s greatest challenges.

Aoun noted how the Class of 2016 has lived, worked, and conducted research on every continent and in more than 100 nations. This hallmark of graduates’ Northeastern experience dovetailed with a core theme of Aoun’s address. He told graduates that if you look at a map, you see a web of dark lines. But if you look at the world from a high vantage point, those lines are nowhere to be seen.

“Boundaries are a matter of perspective,” Aoun said. “Transcending them can be as simple as changing your point of view, or as daunting as flying to the moon. In many ways, education is the process of transcending boundaries. Through it, you transcend boundaries of your knowledge, of your experience, and of yourselves.”

He told graduates that at Northeastern they have already transcended boundaries through co-op, research, entrepreneurship, and global engagement. Now, they are “poised to lead change in a world that needs it.”

‘The brilliant and charismatic class of 2016’

Kerry, the country’s top diplomat, has for five decades led a distinguished career in public service, including nearly 30 years as a U.S. senator representing Massachusetts.

He described the graduates as “the brilliant and charismatic class of 2016,” and echoed Aoun in noting that their Northeastern education has equipped them with a global vision. He urged the graduates to use this critical competency to seize opportunities and tackle the world’s greatest challenges. For much of his address, Kerry spoke passionately of these global challenges, including violent extremism, climate change, poverty, and disease. But he also expressed great optimism over progress being made on these fronts, and graduates’ ability to continue that work.

Kerry told the story of American pilots who during World War II flew supplies from India to allied forces in China. They flew over the Himalayas, manning untested planes and without navigational charts, soaring higher than ever before. He said these courageous airmen, of whom more than 1,000 died, kept the supply lines open and helped win the war, and he hailed them for going as far as their capabilities allowed.

“That is the most that anyone could’ve asked of them,” Kerry said. “It’s what history demands from the United States of America, and it’s what the future asks of you.”

Kerry also mixed sports and politics into his address. He noted that his hometown Boston Red Sox currently lead the American League East, and the rival New York Yankees are in last place. “Don’t let anyone tell you that our country isn’t moving in the right direction,” he joked.

He then underscored the graduates’ vast diversity across gender, race, and geography. “You are the most diverse class in Northeastern’s history,” he said. “In other words, you’re Donald Trump’s worst nightmare.”

Honorary degree recipients

At Commencement, Northeastern conferred honorary degrees upon three accomplished individuals: Retired Maj. Gen. Charles Frank Bolden Jr., the administrator of NASA and a member of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame; Susan Hockfield, former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and Tom McCarthy, an award-winning director, screenwriter, and actor whose most recent film, Spotlight, won the 2016 Oscar for Best Picture.

An exceptional graduating class

Throughout Commencement, graduates were lauded for their many achievements in the classroom, on co-op, in research labs, on playing fields, and through co-curricular activities. In particular, Aoun noted Océane Langreney, SSH’16, whom he said arrived at Northeastern devoted to bridging the divisions that impede children around the world and spent her first co-op working at an orphanage in Peru. Afterward she returned to South America to work with children who were cancer and burn victims, and now intends to open her own orphanage there.

“As Océane told me, until she enrolled at Northeastern, she never thought she could turn her passion into her profession,” Aoun said. “By lifting others past their boundaries, she has transcended her own.”

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Thank you, mom

A number of touching moments highlighted Commencement, including several moving performances. Jessica Litwin, S’16, sang the National Anthem, and The Nor’easters and Distilled Harmony a cappella groups performed several songs. Kwesi Abakah, E’16, joined Distilled Harmony, and with Mother’s Day two days away, dedicated the song to his mother and all mothers in the audience.

“There is no amount of words that can describe the amount of work that you put in for your sons and daughters,” said Abakah.

Northeastern also remembered and awarded posthumous degrees to Victoria McGrath, DMSB’16, and Priscilla Perez Torres, S’16, who died in a car accident while traveling overseas in March. Their families were presented the diplomas.

“They earned their degrees just like each of you,” Aoun told the graduates. He added, “Victoria and Priscilla are with us in spirit—and they will always remain members of the Northeastern family.”

wesi Abakah, E’16, joined Distilled Harmony for a song. Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Kwesi Abakah, E’16, joined Distilled Harmony for a song. Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

‘We do it differently at Northeastern’

Annika Morgan and Ben Bungert, both DMSB’16, delivered the student address. They each led student entrepreneurship organizations—Morgan as Altschuler-Meyer CEO of IDEA, Northeastern’s student-run venture accelerator, and Bungert as president of the Entrepreneurs Club.

This year marked the first time two students delivered the address together, but Morgan and Bungert said this break from the norm is fitting. They explained how Northeastern pushes students to do things that aren’t traditional—whether that means creating new co-ops or launching new student groups and startups.

As Morgan put it, “We do things differently at Northeastern.”

The president’s charge to graduates

To conclude the undergraduate ceremony, Aoun offered his charge to graduates.

“Accept no limits on your ambitions, or on your ideals,” he said. “Help others surpass their boundaries, and transcend your own. As you continue your voyage of discovery, remember that you have a home awaiting your return. It is called Northeastern. It will always be here for you. Now set sail. The world is in your hands.

“I mean it because,” added Aoun, who then paused and produced a beach ball of the globe and punched it into the crowd. “Congratulations to all,” he said. “Let’s party.”

Student celebrate at Commencement. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Students celebrate at Commencement. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

‘Do things you love’

Later in the day, stu­dents received master’s and professional doctorate degrees at a cer­e­mony in Matthews Arena.

In his remarks, graduate ceremony Commencement speaker Charles Elachi chal­lenged the grad­u­ates to take bold risks despite the possibility of failure. “If there are setbacks, don’t get discouraged or disheartened,” said Elachi, the director of the NASA Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory and vice pres­i­dent of the Cal­i­fornia Insti­tute of Tech­nology. “Instead, resolve to try again.”

Aoun noted that Elachi has devoted his life to transcending boundaries, echoing the theme of his speech to undergraduates. “He has crossed the boundaries of Earth to unravel our galaxy’s mysteries and reveal new ones that lie beyond,” Aoun said. “Under his leadership, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has deepened our understanding of the Earth’s climate and our oceans. It has probed comets, reached interstellar space, and peered back through billions of years of time.”

Whether they choose to explore the solar system like he did—or find their true calling in business, the arts, or the social sciences—Elachi urged the advanced degree recipients to keep two things in mind as they embark on the next phase of their lives. “Stay curious,” said Elachi, who received an honorary doctorate of engineering, and “do things you love.”