Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, receives Golden Door Award

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun, standing in front of dozens of fellow immigrants, received the 38th annual Golden Door Award at Matthews Arena. Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

At the height of this evening that was meant to celebrate his immigrant story, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun turned to applaud the people who were unexpectedly and proudly standing behind him. 

He had invited them to join him onstage at historic Matthews Arena because they had immigrated to the U.S, as he did. They, after a moment of surprise, had responded by the dozens to his offer, like a symbolic diaspora of Aoun’s making. They emerged from the large audience of students, donors, vested citizens, and fellow immigrants who now stood to cheer on a vision of hope explored and opportunity fulfilled.

“I am proud and humbled to share this journey with you,” Aoun said. “Your journey has been much more difficult than mine. Welcome to Northeastern, and welcome to our community.”

For his contributions to U.S. society as a citizen who arrived as an immigrant, Aoun, a native of Lebanon, received the 38th annual Golden Door Award on Thursday from the International Institute of New England. Aoun used the evening to explain not only how he had come to realize his own purpose, but also why he relates to all of the students he meets—whether they have been driven to pursue their dreams at Northeastern from another corner of the world, or a mere few stops on the subway.

“Each one of us has a similar story to tell,” Aoun said. “Each one of us is, in some way, an immigrant.”

The International Institute of New England, founded in 1918, creates opportunities for refugees and immigrants to succeed through resettlement, education, career advancement, and pathways to citizenship. The award’s name is drawn from the words of Emma Lazarus, as inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty: From her beacon hand glows world-wide welcome…I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Aoun’s son, Karim Aoun, said that his father’s background as an immigrant has influenced his leadership of Northeastern.

“He is a product of multiple cultures,” the son said of his father. “He has really valued the importance of creating a global university.”

In presenting the award to Aoun, the committee cited Northeastern’s expansion of experiential learning to 146 countries, as well as its network of seven campuses in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.—manifestations of Aoun’s vision for a global university that supports lifelong learning and collaborative research.

Previous recipients of the Golden Door Award include the architect I.M. Pei (1970), cellist Yo-Yo Ma (1988), and Margaret Marshall, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (2013).

For Aoun, the evening offered a rare opportunity to tell his story as an immigrant who earned a diploma of advanced studies in general and theoretical linguistics at the University of Paris in the 1970s, while civil war was ravaging his homeland of Lebanon.

“I was raised in a bilingual family,” Aoun told the Golden Door audience. “I sang in French and played games in Lebanese Arabic. Even my dreams were bilingual. My homeland was a beautiful quilt of cultures and religions.”

In Paris, Aoun acknowledged, the French language and culture made him feel at ease.

“But the people were unknown to me, and the music of their accents sounded in a different key,” he said. “I was a migrant, cut off from my home by a civil war that lasted decades.”

It was when Aoun enrolled at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that he experienced isolation as never before. He was able to make sense of roughly 10 percent of the English he heard.

“My Arabic was immaculate. My French impeccable. And my English … incoherent,” Aoun said. “In English, my thoughts raced past my vocabulary, leaving my sentences reeling in confusion.

“I understood just enough to feel helpless, severed from everything I knew. I found myself on the other side of the language barrier. Beyond language, I faced an unknown landscape, a new culture with different norms. I nearly quit … I should never have left Paris.”

Aoun found assistance from a professor, Ken Hale, who asked Aoun to run a workshop that studied the formal structure of Arabic. His new role gave Aoun the confidence to wrestle English words and syntax “into submission,” he said.

“But, as you can hear, I didn’t master the accent,” he said.

A professor, Morris Halle, and Aoun’s roommate, Amy Weinberg, each invited him to celebrate Thanksgiving. He ate two dinners that day and had turkey leftovers for weeks, he recalled with a smile; in years to come he would renew the tradition by inviting graduate students to his home.

Noam Chomsky, an American linguist and philosopher whose writings Aoun had struggled to absorb as a student in Paris, became a friend in Boston. Chomsky assembled a crib for infant Karim.

“Community was the scaffolding on which I overcame my obstacles,” Aoun said.

Said his wife, Zeina Aoun: “He knew then that a multicultural society was where he wants to be.”

So successful was Aoun’s transformation that he and Zeina would be persuaded by Halle—himself an immigrant—to make another leap and resettle at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. There, Aoun would serve as  the inaugural holder of the Anna H. Bing Dean’s Chair at the College of Letters. 

“In Los Angeles, in one of life’s wonderful reversals, my sons attended to my American education,” Aoun said. “Their schooling became my schooling. With them, I played baseball and sang Old MacDonald. Mr. Rogers and Big Bird became our neighbors. Our family traditions grew to include backyard barbecues and fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“My dreams were no longer just bilingual. Now I also dreamed in English.”

In 2006, Aoun returned to Boston as the seventh president of Northeastern. Thomas M. Menino, the legendary mayor, encouraged Aoun to explore his new community.

“I asked him, ‘Who knows Boston the best?’ He said, ‘Of course, I do,’” Aoun recalled. “That Saturday, from seven in the morning to seven at night, he introduced me to every neighborhood in Boston. Roxbury, Mission Hill, Fenway, the South End, Jamaica Plain, the Back Bay—he showed me the whole of Boston’s marvelous mosaic.”

Likewise did the people of Northeastern adopt the Aouns as their own. 

“I stand here tonight as the sum of these welcomes and adoptions,” Aoun said. “My life is a consequence of kindness.”

The poignant evening began with a performance by the Northeastern University Choral Society of “The Immigrant Experience,” a powerful cantata by John Kramer that established the spirit of the occasion. Aoun’s story served to embody that spirit.

“He has brought his experiences of living in Lebanon, France, and other places to Northeastern by emphasizing that we should not be living in our own bubble in the U.S.,” said Northeastern graduate Robert A. DeLeo, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. “We all have something to learn from each other’s backgrounds and experiences.”

Aoun summed up the lesson of his life’s journeys, which have altogether influenced his leadership at Northeastern: 

“Immigration is displacement,” he said. “Intellectually, culturally, or physically, every one of us has experienced what it means to feel displaced.

“Immigration is discovery. It’s learning a new language, a new culture, a new landscape. It opens new geographies in our minds.

“Immigration is reinvention. It adds hyphens to our identities. It re-creates ourselves.

“Immigration, above all, is communal. We cannot make the journey alone. Every immigrant needs the support of a community. That is why we are here tonight.

“For this is not my celebration,” Aoun said. “Tonight, you are honoring my family and every person who shaped, impacted, and supported me on my journey.

“You are honoring our Northeastern community, and all communities that embrace the immigrant and the stranger.

“And you are especially honoring the women and men who have taken the brave journey that has brought them here tonight.”

And with that, Aoun invited his fellow immigrants to be honored with him. For this night of renewal was never meant to be celebrated alone.

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