Like the more than 3,000 graduates who are poised to enter the world after capping off years of hard work leading up to Northeastern’s 115th commencement exercises at TD Garden on Friday, the world is on the precipice of change. Climate change is catalyzing scientists into action; increasingly polarized world views are demanding new ways of relating to one another; political upheaval across the globe is challenging long-held governmental norms; and new technology is fundamentally changing lives.
Each bringing their own expertise to bear, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun and Commencement speaker Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, encouraged the graduates to navigate this change gracefully, nimbly, and benevolently.
“I think you all must enter the world discarding the notion that compromise, and even appeasement, in any field or endeavor, is weakness,” Amanpour said during her remarks. “What has moved me the most over all the years of reporting from deadly and dark corners and conflict zones is the bright light of compromise.”
‘No time like the present’
Relying on the emotions and the connections that bind rather than divide humanity was a hallmark of Aoun’s remarks to the graduates as well.
In a world that is becoming technologically advanced and dependent on artificial intelligence at a head-spinning pace, Aoun challenged students to reconnect to their humanity.
“Creativity, entrepreneurship, cultural agility, empathy: these are the qualities that make us uniquely human,” Aoun said. “And they are more valuable—and powerful—than any AI, robot, or advanced machine. I never heard of a robot that felt the burning drive to launch its own business. I never heard of an algorithm that was compelled to reach out and comfort an ailing child. You have done this, and more. Each of you has honed your human qualities during your time at Northeastern; nurture them.”
In fact, Aoun proved his own unique humanness during his address. Noting that artificially intelligent robots are projected to replace thousands of jobs in the coming years, Aoun said he could rest assured that “at least they cannot give a commencement address like me.”
“Don’t be so sure,” replied a 4-foot-tall, 81-pound robot on stage next to him. FRASIER, a Toyota-backed robot created by Northeastern associate professor Taskin Padir and his students, joked that there was “no time like the present” for robots to start replacing humans.
After a back-and-forth conversation with the robot, Aoun said he felt sure his job was safe “for now.”
“FRASIER’s delivery was a bit mechanic,” he joked.
Still, Aoun said the key to staying ahead of the rise of artificial intelligence is lifelong learning.
“In a technology-driven future, the advantage will be not just with those who possess power, capital, or even specialized skills,” he said. “It will also be with those who remain mentally flexible, adaptable, and keen to acquire and generate new knowledge. So, return often to the well of knowledge. Refill your cup and drink deeply. Upgrade your minds, bodies, and hearts as you would your technology. Then, I believe, you will truly become robot-proof.”
‘Get in good trouble’
Amanpour, whose decades-long journalistic career has set the standard of excellence in reporting, was equally concerned with the shifting sands facing today’s graduates. In this, the fake news, post-fact era, she reflected on Northeastern’s motto—Lux, Veritas, Virtus, which translates to Light, Truth, Virtue.
“Light comes from truth, which leads to virtue; I believe that,” she said.
She encouraged students to be bastions of truth-telling and fact-finding, and not to be cowed by bad agents in today’s complex world.
“The rejection of science, of facts, of truth, is the hallmark of today’s populous everywhere. It’s fired up my long struggle and my commitment to stay truthful but never neutral,” she said, to thunderous applause.
Amanpour tackled other sociopolitical issues as well, challenging students to embrace sustainable energy, overcome ideological barriers, help refugees and others who desperately need it, and work diligently toward equality.
“I hope this generation is the generation that will finally push the fundamental right of women’s and men’s equality across the finish line,” she said. “The truth is, it will lift up the whole world.” Then, quoting Beyoncé, she added, “We should all be feminists and ‘feminism’ is not a dirty word.”
More broadly, Amanpour implored Friday’s graduates to—in the words of U.S. Rep. John Lewis—“get in good trouble.”
“What I want to give all of you young men and women going out there is the right to hope and to dream,” she said. “Nothing is barred from you—nothing out there is barred if you have the heart, the will, and the desire to go out there and do it.
“Now, go out there and make a hell of a lot of good trouble,” Amanpour said.
‘We must still buy a ticket’
Hers was a call to action that also resonated through student speaker Pankhuri Singhal’s address earlier in the ceremony.
“We are in an age of interconnectivity: of information, of novel ideas, and of communities. With this understanding, I sought out a multitude of interdisciplinary experiences outside of my field of study,” she said. “Northeastern provides a platform for students seeking to push the boundaries of their comfort zone.”
Singhal has published research on complex tissue regeneration in two top-tier scientific journals and presented her work at RISE—Northeastern’s Research, Innovation, and Scholarship Expo—and the Society for Developmental Biology’s annual conference held in Boston last year.
Her experience highlights the importance of taking action to achieve one’s goals—or step out of one’s comfort zone—rather than merely dreaming about it. Recalling a joke about a man who prays to win the lottery but never buys a ticket, Singhal said to her peers: “Simply having dreams is no longer enough—we must still buy a ticket. And that ticket is engagement.
“Class of 2017, we are at a crossroads in history and we must awaken ourselves to this new layer of responsibility,” Singhal said. “There is a need for a cadre of disruptive thinkers. So, I implore you: be brazen, be open to our roots, to collaborations, and most importantly, to each other.”
Honorary degree recipients
Northeastern conferred honorary degrees upon three accomplished individuals: Sir Lucian Grainge CBE, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group and a Northeastern University trustee and parent; Myechia Minter-Jordan, president and CEO of the Dimock Center; and Diana Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso. Each was celebrated for their influential work and leadership.
Following a performance by the Nor’easters, who last month placed first in an international a-cappella championship, and the conferring of diplomas to the graduates, Aoun issued his charge to the Class of 2017.
“Remember Pankhuri’s words: engagement is the ticket to winning life’s lottery. Remember, too, the words of Christiane Amanpour, and heed well her lesson on making good trouble—starting after we leave,” he said, to laughter.
“In a world of technological wonders, your human intelligence is the most profound miracle,” Aoun said. “In the cool glow of artificial intelligence, your emotional intelligence will shine. Stay engaged with the world, and stay engaged with your Northeastern. Northeastern will be your lifelong companion wherever you are. The AI Age may be dawning, but you remain the architects of humanity’s brilliant future.”
‘Lead with kindness’
Later in the day, nearly 2,000 students received master’s and professional doctorate degrees at a ceremony in Matthews Arena.
In their remarks, graduate ceremony Commencement speakers Dave Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal drew on their experience as accomplished “philanthropreneurs” to impart a few nuggets of wisdom to the nation’s future leaders.
Gilboa and Blumenthal co-founded the innovative lifestyle brand Warby Parker in 2010, upending the $100 billion eyewear industry with a simple business model: cut out the middlemen, offer stylish frames for just $95, and donate one pair for each pair purchased.
“We’ve worked tirelessly to position ourselves to be recipients of as much good fortune as possible and to capitalize on it whenever it comes our way,” said Blumenthal. “In doing so we’ve learned some important lessons that we want to share with you today.”
One lesson—“commit to continual improvement”—drew on their initial lack of knowledge of the eyewear industry, which forced them to ask basic questions about every aspect of their business. While industry insiders scoffed, Gilboa explained, he and Blumenthal learned more every day, got smarter, and applied their newfound knowledge to ultimately become one of the most innovative companies in the world.
“You don’t need to start a business or work at a startup to be entrepreneurial,” Gilboa told the graduates. “You just need to commit to getting better every day.”
Another lesson—“speed walk, don’t cliff dive”—focused on the virtues of taking baby steps toward big goals. Gilboa and Blumenthal were “obsessed with the idea of building a business that could scale and do good,” but chose not to drop out of graduate school at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to pursue their idea in gung ho fashion. Instead, they used their time in school to “systematically de-risk every element of the business,” spending a year-and-a-half building a business plan, determining at what price they should sell their product, and coming up with a name—which is derived from two literary characters in one of Jack Kerouac’s books.
“Conquer fear by minimizing risk—not eliminating it,” said Blumenthal. “Take baby steps rather than giant leaps. If you feel like you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, take a step back and break that decision down into a handful of smaller decisions. Those smaller steps and decisions might enable you to find a different path down the mountain.”
The final life lesson imparted by the socially conscious changemakers to the scores of young scholars—“lead with kindness”—is in Warby Parker’s DNA. In fact, there’s a quotation from the novelist Henry James on the wall in the company’s office, reinforcing this motto to its 1,100 employees. “Three things in human life are important,” it reads. “The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
As soon-to-be-leaders in myriad fields, Northeastern’s newest graduates also have an obligation to be “proliferators of kindness,” Gilboa explained. “If you’re not sure where to begin, start with a simple question,” he said. “Ask yourself, ‘What can I do to make someone’s life better?’”