Reinvention gives humans an edge over artificial intelligence, Northeastern University President Aoun tells 2019 graduates

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The Class of 2019 graduates into a world continuously being reshaped by rapidly advancing technology. And with the skills, knowledge, and agility they have acquired through their experiences at Northeastern, this year’s graduates are well prepared to evolve along with it, President Joseph E. Aoun told students, families, and friends assembled at TD Garden on Friday.

Photo by Billie Weiss for Northeastern University

“The world will never stop reinventing technology,” Aoun said, “so we can never stop reinventing ourselves.”

Aoun took the podium to applause and laughter after a spirited video showed him leaping off buildings and over tables to get to the commencement ceremony on time.

With a “woot” and a short ovation, the graduates thanked their relatives and loved ones—and with another, the faculty and staff.

“Your Northeastern education has made you skillful and agile—almost as agile as a university president running behind schedule,” Aoun said, triggering another ripple of laughter.

The ability to reinvent ourselves is deeply human, he said. Like creativity, empathy, and cultural agility, reinvention is a uniquely human attribute that allows us to excel where machines cannot.

“Reinvention comes through experience,” Aoun told the packed arena. “Experience is at the heart of everything we do here at Northeastern.”

Aoun spoke of Tara Westover, the 2019 Commencement speaker and author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Educated.

“Her story of reinvention is driven by wrenching personal circumstances,” Aoun said. “Each of you can tell your own tale of reinvention.”

Whether students came to Northeastern from other countries, leaving behind the comfort of native languages or familiar norms as Aoun himself did, or simply embraced the challenges  they faced once they arrived, they have all been reshaped by their experiences, Aoun said.

The graduates waved flags representing 147 countries, representing the places they came from and the places they traveled to during their Northeastern education.

“It’s beautiful,” Aoun said, looking out across a sea of colors.

Aoun told the story of Claire Celestin, a graduating senior who has received a Marshall Scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in children and women’s health in the United Kingdom. When she started at Northeastern, Celestin was less sure about her path. Her dreams ranged from teacher to doctor and back again, Aoun said.

But on co-op in the maternity ward of a crowded Peruvian hospital, Celestin found the direction she was looking for. She met Ruro, a midwife who was working to empower pregnant women to trust their bodies and themselves. The experience was transformative.

“Striving to give voices to others, Claire found her own voice and her own calling,” Aoun said. “Claire experienced the greatest gift of a Northeastern education: the ability to reinvent herself with purpose.”

New experiences are the catalysts for reinvention. Aoun reminded the graduates that Commencement is a beginning, a step along their journey of lifelong learning. He charged them to continue to pursue new experiences and to use what they learn to shape themselves and their future.

“Reinvent yourselves so that you can reinvent the world,” Aoun told the Class of 2019. “Inequality, injustice, intolerance—use your humanity to cast light on these shadows. Never forget that our true power is in our human connections.”  

In his final charge to the newly minted graduates, Aoun challenged all of them to change the world.

“Our world is beset by challenges. It’s complex beyond reckoning. It’s also beautiful beyond imagination,” he said, bouncing a beach ball painted like a globe into the crowd. “Now the world belongs to you; it’s in your hands, and it’s time for us to go on vacation.” 

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