“A force for good.”
That’s the phrase featured speaker Dennis Shaughnessy, executive professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Northeastern, used to describe the nine students in the sixth graduating class of the Torch Scholars Program at a luncheon held in their honor on Thursday.
Students, faculty, and staff, as well as program donors and Torch alumni, sat at tables lit by orange and red tulips on the top floor of East Village to celebrate the academic, research, and global accomplishments of the diverse group of first-generation college students. The program launched 10 years ago.
“We began as a cohort of strangers who shared a hunger for success,” said master of ceremonies Diane Ortiz, DMSB’16, who studied healthcare in Australia and photography in Cuba on Dialogue of Civilizations programs while a Torch Scholar. “From the start of our journey we have taken full advantage of what Northeastern had to offer us.” She ticked off the group’s remarkable travel opportunities, community service hours, and contributions to cancer research. “We had an absolutely amazing experience at Northeastern, and now we will pay it forward.”
Among those doing so is student speaker Tylik Stevens, AMD’16. He recounted the adverse circumstances in which he grew up in the Bronx, New York, and detailed his “transformation,” capped by his time as a Torch Scholar. During his time at Northeastern, Stevens participated in Dialogues to Australia, England, and Scotland. He also completed three co-ops, with two of his employers’ offering him permanent positions.
“This is a complete turnaround,” he said. “Without Northeastern and the generosity of the Torch Scholars Program, I don’t know where I’d be. Now, for my family and friends, I am a beacon of light.”
It was an apt metaphor for all of the scholars, including Octave Ntambi, BHS’16, and Terina Keller, SSH’16.
Originally from Lynn, Massachusetts, Ntambi switched his major from nursing to health science after a co-op at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he worked as a patient-care technician. For his capstone project, he researched the rare brain disease cystic leukoencephalopathy using imaging technology to track the development of tumors in animal models. Inspired by his years as a Torch Scholar, he plans to pursue a career in medical research.
Hailing from the opposite coast, Terina Keller, of Portland, Oregon, majored in sociology with a concentration in public health. An honors student, she is a member of the Huntington 100, a group of students selected for their impressive achievements and impact both on campus and around the world. Among the countries in which she studied and worked through co-ops and Dialogues are Italy, Costa Rica, and Panama. Her goals are lofty but in line with her accomplishments: She wants to investigate the social determinants of health in low-income populations throughout the U.S and abroad.
President Joseph E. Aoun took the light Stevens invoked and turned it on the scholars themselves. “You capture the purpose of this program, the soul of this program,” he said. “But you Torch Scholars have a responsibility. You have a responsibility toward your families, your neighbors, and also toward this university. Because this university is yours. You are going to take charge and at some point replace all of us. That means you have to carry the university with you wherever you are. It will support you wherever you are, too. But now the future, our future, is in your hands.”
Roadmap for success
Making the most of that future means continuing to develop as a force for good, explained Shaughnessy, who is also the founder and executive director of Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute. That requires five qualities, he said: “Be gritty, be lucky, be fearless, be contagious, and be authentic.”
Grit, Shaughnessy noted, combines equal parts determination, passion for a particular pursuit, and long-term goals. “Those who nurture their grit end up the most successful,” he said, nixing the idea that talent was the primary driver. Luck has two components: preparation and opportunity. Being contagious means being positive. “Your positivity is contagious,” he said. “People who are positive generate energy.”
He alluded to the authenticity of the words spoken by Ortiz and Stevens before him and then he closed this way: “Overcome challenges with grace, dignity, and respect,” he said. “Always be the person you want to be.”