President Joseph E. Aoun, other university and student leaders spoke to new students Tuesday morning at the President’s Convocation, urging them to seize the many opportunities ahead, explore the world, find their paths, discover new passions, and become robot-proof in a world impacted by artificial intelligence.
Becoming robot-proof was the core theme of Aoun’s address to Northeastern’s 120th entering class, which gathered in Matthews Arena. Aoun said that in the next 20 to 30 years, “half of the jobs we know are going to disappear” as a result of robots and automation. Smart machines are getting smarter, he said, advising students to stay ahead of this trend by focusing on acquiring skills and gaining experience in areas robots cannot reach.
“We need to be constantly ahead of robots and smart machines by cultivating what we have that is unique: creativity, entrepreneurship, cultural agility, ethics, diversity, the global perspective,” said Aoun, drawing inspiration from his new book, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.
Aoun also challenged freshmen—a diverse group hailing from nearly 100 different countries—to push back against “unacceptable” forces of exclusion and racism in our society. “Don’t accept it. Change it,” Aoun said. “That’s why you are here. You are here to make the world a different place. You can only do it by understanding yourself, by understanding where the world is, and by taking us where we should be.”
Convocation was accentuated by many moments of joy and togetherness, as students performed the wave prior to the ceremony, roared when their college deans were introduced, and cheered for upperclassmen who offered their own words of wisdom.
Freshmen were also treated to two fun videos. The first showed first-year students launching into impromptu carpool karaoke while riding across campus in a golf cart, while the second featured Aoun pretending to be the voice of an Amazon Echo during what students thought were focus groups.
The Nor’easters, the university’s award-winning a cappella group, performed Northeastern’s “Alma Mater” at the start of the ceremony and “Rise Up” to close out the celebration. Five students lit the ceremonial torch, as students in the audience turned on battery-operated wands as the Matthews lights dimmed, creating a beautiful scene throughout the arena. Philomena Mantella, senior vice president and CEO of the Northeastern University Professional Advancement Network, explained that the torch “symbolizes the leadership, zeal, and spirit of the university community.”
Suchira Sharma, president of the Student Government Association and a senior majoring in business administration, also addressed the freshmen. She encouraged them to leave the spaces they occupy—whether it be a classroom, co-op, student organization, or team—better than they found it. She told them their decisions over the next few years will help shape their and others’ lives. “You will decide what your role is in Northeastern’s story and you will decide how to shape not just our school’s history but the world’s,” she said. “Because Northeastern is a place where you can do exactly that: change the world.”
Sharma urged students to innovate, ask questions, inspire others, and stand up for their beliefs and for their peers.
Student speakers Lola Akingbade and Pablo Hernandez Basulto, both seniors, drew on their experiences at Northeastern to inspire the incoming class. Akingbade, a behavioral neuroscience major, and Hernandez Basulto, a theater major, both pointed to their co-op experiences as instrumental in their development.
Hernandez Basulto spent five months earlier this year working on theatre projects in Rio de Janeiro and London that engaged homeless people in the arts. The impactful opportunities, he said, allowed him to delve deeper into his passion to explore theatre for social change. He arrived at Northeastern in fall 2013 eager to explore not only theater but also disciplines such as politics and philosophy.
“At Northeastern, no discipline is isolated,” he said. “Bridges between colleges, connections between ideas, disciplines, and even cultures are constantly encouraged.”
Akingbade, for her part, has worked in Alzheimer’s protein research and conducted spatial environmental health mapping, and she is currently working at a pharmaceutical startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Co-op is an amazing opportunity that will leave the bounds of your Northeastern education untethered,” Akingbade told the new students. “I urge you all to use it as a means to explore, interrogate, and narrow your passions while widening the breadth of your knowledge.”
Fall Fest fun
After Convocation, students streamed out of Matthews Arena to participate in Fall Fest, a campus-wide celebration showcasing the hundreds of ways for new students to get involved on campus through student organizations, club sports, and other university offices and departments. Fall Fest featured food, music, giveaways, a variety of games, and a giant slip n’ slide.