On May 3, before a packed audience at TD Garden in Boston, author Tara Westover will deliver Northeastern University’s 2019 Commencement address.
She will be at the podium that morning because one of her brothers taught her to read. Because another brother showed her the importance of education, despite the protests of their father. Because she taught herself mathematics on her way to preparing herself for the standardized test that opened the vault to her academic life. She learned everything the hard way.
Westover’s best-selling memoir, Educated, explains her resilient response to the isolated and dysfunctional world in which she was raised, at the foot of a mountain in rural Idaho, working in a junkyard for a father who kept his seven children from school, medical care, and many other elements of mainstream society.
Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun announced on Twitter the news of Westover being named commencement speaker.
“Tara Westover’s breathtaking story illustrates the transformative power of experience,” Aoun said. “Throughout her journey, which included many obstacles, she maintained a relentless thirst for knowledge, even if it meant reading books in secret. She is a powerful emblem of learning in all its forms, and we are very happy to welcome her to the Northeastern family.”
The ceremony will take place before a global audience of 20,000 graduates, their families, and members of the Northeastern community, as part of the university’s 117th Commencement exercises. Westover will also receive an honorary doctoral degree.
“I’m delighted to be delivering the commencement for the 2019 graduating class—for the students, who have worked hard for their degrees, and for the university, and its commitment to revitalizing higher education,” Westover said.
Westover was born in her parents’ home in Clifton, Idaho, in September 1986, though she does not know the day. Not until her ninth year did her parents apply for her birth certificate, and by then no one could recall her exact birthdate.
She graduated magna cum laude from Brigham Young University in 2008. She was a visiting fellow at Harvard University, which was sandwiched by the master of philosophy and the PhD in history that she earned from Trinity College in Cambridge, England. And yet, she did not enter a classroom until she was 17.
After she made the courageous decision to leave her family, against their wishes, she experienced another form of isolation. One day in class she asked her professor about the Holocaust. She explained that she had never heard of it. Classmates assumed she was a denier and a racist. She had arrived at college as if removing a blindfold for the first time in her life.
Westover was raised at the foot of Buck’s Peak, more than 7,000 feet tall. Her father, who operated a junkyard in Clifton, Idaho, was distrustful of the government. He believed that many aspects of society had been infiltrated by the Illuminati, a mythical cabal of secret operatives plotting to form a new world order. The family hoarded weapons and food in preparation for the End of Days.
Tara, the youngest, grew up working in the junkyard. When she or her siblings suffered injuries, they were treated by their mother, an herbalist and midwife.
Westover was physically abused by an older brother, which would lead to her estrangement from her parents. A great difference is observed among the Westover children: All three who moved away from their sequestered family have gone on to earn PhDs.
“I worry that education is becoming a stick that some people use to beat other people into submission, or becoming something that people feel arrogant about,” Westover told billionaire entrepreneur Bill Gates in a video interview in December. “I think education is really just a process of self-discovery—of developing a sense of self and what you think. I think of [it] as this great mechanism of connecting and equalizing.”
Northeastern’s past Commencement speakers have featured a diverse group of leaders and public figures, including U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy (1956); First Lady Barbara Bush (1991), President Bill Clinton (1993); Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1998); poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (1992); Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (2014); secretaries of state John Kerry (2016), Colin Powell (2012), and Madeleine Albright (2000); and CNN’s chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour (2017). Aimée Mullins, an actor and Paralympian, delivered the Commencement address in 2018.