President Aoun’s advice to new students: Become robot-proof, explore the world

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern’s newest students are beginning their college journeys at a time in which artificial intelligence is reshaping technology and redefining the future of work.

On Tuesday morning, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun told freshmen and transfer students that making themselves “robot-proof” should be part of their Northeastern experience.

“You are the generation that is going to live with all the impact of AI,” Aoun said at the President’s Convocation, an annual ceremony to welcome new students to Northeastern’s Boston campus, “and frankly you are going to shape it.”

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

In his book, Robot-Proof, Aoun discusses higher education’s role in preparing students for a world in which smart machines work alongside humans. He lays out the framework for a new curriculum—humanics—that builds on humans’ innate strengths that differentiate them from robots, such as empathy, entrepreneurship, and cultural agility.  

“Humanics will allow you to be ahead of the machines, will allow you to focus on understanding machines, and allow you to go beyond and focus on what we humans can do and machines cannot duplicate,” Aoun said.

Aoun encouraged students to step out of their comfort zones and explore new interests. He urged them to participate in Northeastern’s experiential learning programs through which they can work on co-op, conduct research, or study on all seven continents. And he advised them to take advantage of the flexibility provided in a Northeastern education to add majors or even master’s programs as part of their undergraduate studies.

Aoun acknowledged that many students have already chosen their majors—but advised them not to close themselves off to other opportunities or be afraid to change majors. College students on average change majors up to three times, he said, and that is all part of the college journey.

“So when you call your parents when you tell them that you may add another major or you may change majors, they may panic,” he said, “but we are here to support you because you are discovering new fields and you are discovering new passions.”

The President’s Convocation, which is traditionally held the day before undergraduate classes begin, included advice from other university leaders, musical performances, and several symbolic and light-hearted moments.

A torch lighting officially inducted Northeastern’s newest students into the university community. Lighting the torch were five students whose accomplishments in innovation, campus involvement, experiential learning, research, and service make them “shining examples of the essence of Northeastern,” said Philomena Mantella, senior vice president and chief executive officer of the Lifelong Learning Network.

Nathan Hostert, president of the Student Government Association, shared some advice he said he was fortunate to have received his freshman year: Follow your passions, but also try new things that may not be directly related to your major. Hostert said following that advice inspired him to perform in a musical, join intramural dodgeball, and participate in a Dialogue of Civilizations program in Switzerland. Dialogues at Northeastern are intensive, faculty-led learning programs held during the summer in countries around the world.

Hostert urged students to find ways to give back to the communities surrounding campus, and to  think of their missteps as stepping stones and opportunities for personal growth.

“College isn’t about having everything figured out,” said Hostert, who is a third-year student studying political science. “College is about discovering who you are, finding your passions, and getting to know people who will support you the rest of your life.”

After Convocation, students walked from Matthews Arena and spread out across the Boston campus to participate in Fall Fest, an annual festival for all Northeastern students that includes games, free food, music, giveaways, and opportunities to learn about the more than 400 student organizations on campus as well as other university departments. Students also took pictures with the Northeastern mascot, Paws, and climbed a rock wall set up on Centennial Common.

At a “Virtual Hub” set up in Snell Quad, students at the Boston campus talked with their peers who are at Northeastern’s other campuses, studying abroad, or on global co-op in places such as Australia and Switzerland. Students going through orientation at Northeastern’s Silicon Valley campus got to speak with Bob Jose, Northeastern’s associate dean of cultural, residential, and spiritual life.

Students at Fall Fest said they were excited to start the academic year. Jean-Geoffroy Gauthey, a freshman international business major from Paris, said he signed up for two club sports, soccer and rugby, at Fall Fest.

Marilyn Miao, a freshman from China, said she was drawn to Northeastern because of the university’s diverse community.

“Getting to know people from all around the world is really exciting to me,” said Miao, who is majoring in psychology.

Freshman Ava DiPietro said her visit to Northeastern as a high school student played a huge role in her decision to apply to the university, particularly after hearing a presentation on the computer science program by retired associate dean Doreen Hodgkin. During that presentation, she said, she learned about Northeastern’s combined major programs. Another big plus: co-op.

“I’ve always wanted to work at Google, and I thought I’d only have that opportunity after graduation,” said DiPietro, who is a combined major in computer science and design. But Northeastern’s co-op program, she said, will give her the chance to land a job at the tech giant before she gets her degree.