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‘I want to make sure whatever I'm doing is benefiting people’

Rebecca Leeper, who is graduating in computer engineering, looks forward to giving the student speech at Northeastern’s 2019 Commencement. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

A recruiting tour of high school students and their parents comes to a stop near the table occupied by Rebecca Leeper. She turns to look up at them, as though she can see herself in that same crowd five years ago.

“It does feel like I’ve been here for a long time,” says Leeper, who will be the student speaker at Northeastern’s 2019 Commencement on Friday. “My life is so different now than it was then. My goals are different.”

She is experiencing a poignant, turning-of-the-page moment as she sits in the lobby of the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex, which had not even opened when she enrolled at Northeastern in 2014. Leeper’s dueling senses of nostalgia and ambition will be magnified by the stage she will occupy Friday at TD Garden, where, in the span of five minutes, she will be making sense of the past in a way that inspires her fellow graduates to look ahead to the best years of their lives.

For Leeper, who is graduating in computer engineering, the revelation of who she could be emerged in 2017 at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, during a month-long Dialogue of Civilizations program that was led by her mentor, political science and international affairs professor Denise Garcia.

“Through the experience in Geneva, I was opened up to how much suffering is happening around the world, and that I am so privileged,” Leeper says. “No matter what obstacles I’ve faced in my own life, there are so many people out there that have overcome so much more, or are actually in the thick of it.”

After graduation, when Leeper launches her career as a software engineer and tech consultant at Data Ductus-Boston, an international consultancy firm with which she served a co-op, she hopes to pursue an agenda of technology that helps people.

“I think that’s something that Northeastern has given me,” Leeper says. “I want to make sure whatever I’m doing is benefiting people. Because otherwise there is no point.”

Garcia encouraged Leeper to apply for the commencement honor. She wrote and revised her speech multiple times during spring break, with the help of friends. Back on campus, she recorded a five-minute video of her delivering the speech in an empty classroom. She did it in two takes.

“The biggest thing that I needed to do was to show them that it wasn’t perfect,” she says of her video presentation to the selection committee. “Whenever you speak, things happen—you lose your breath, or you have to swallow—and I wanted to show them that I’m very capable of moving forward from those moments. Because, standing in front of all those people, who knows what’s going to happen? I wanted to show that I could just keep going and I wouldn’t be fazed.”

Leeper was leaving the dentist last month when she opened the email informing her of her selection. Her first instinct was to call her mother, who will be among the capacity crowd at TD Garden, alongside her brother, aunt, uncle, and boyfriend. She will be drawing from experiences in theater as well as her performances in soccer and basketball.

“I’m not going to say that 20,000 people doesn’t intimidate me, because it definitely does,” Leeper says. “But I really enjoy it. I am just so excited to do this.”

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