Northeastern president Joseph E. Aoun celebrates the Class of 2021–and all that jazz

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, spoke at the 2021 Commencement ceremony at Fenway Park. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In a rousing address to graduating students, Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, credited the “Northeastern spirit” of the entire university community with banding together to overcome the many obstacles of the past year.

“We traverse boundaries. We overcome obstacles. We believe that every problem has a solution,” Aoun said to the thousands of graduates and their family members gathered—at a safe distance from each other—in Fenway Park on Saturday for the university’s 119th Commencement exercises.

“I want to thank the entire Northeastern community—especially our new graduates—for making this past year successful,” he said.

Many more people joined the ceremony virtually, from Matthews Arena on the university’s Boston campus, and around the world. Aoun acknowledged their support, while video screens at Fenway filled with live shots of graduates and their families celebrating from India, Venezuela, Nigeria, and elsewhere.

Speaking out to a sea full of graduates clad in caps, gowns, and this year, masks, Aoun offered a different kind of address for a different kind of year.

“At most Commencement ceremonies, the job of the president is to make bold pronouncements,” he said. “But this is not most Commencements. And this is no ordinary time. So instead of offering a series of clichés about hopes, dreams, and possibilities, I would like to share a few simple stories.”

Aoun was sitting in his office at 716 Columbus Place last October, he told graduates, as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, and a sense of emptiness settled in. 

“But then I heard music. A saxophone, keyboards, bass guitar, and drums. And it was fantastic.”

Assuming someone was playing music from their computer, Aoun investigated. What he found was much better: A live jazz quartet, led by Zeke Martin, who teaches in Northeastern’s College of Arts, Media and Design, was jamming in an alley behind Columbus Avenue.

“They didn’t realize anyone was listening,” Aoun recalled. “I looked up and saw people opening their windows in amazement. An NUPD officer standing nearby gave a thumbs up.”

He added, “What Zeke and his bandmates showed us that day is something I hope we can all remember: The times of greatest challenge demand that we add an extra measure of purpose to our passion.”

Aoun regaled another story, this one about members of the Class of 2021.

“A college education has always involved passing tests. But your class has to be the most tested in history. Of course, I’m talking about COVID tests,” he said.

Throughout the year, students got tested dozens of times each—and in fact, the university surpassed 1 million COVID-19 tests at the end of April.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The rigorous testing protocol was essential to Northeastern’s ability to reopen in the fall and to stay open throughout the spring.

“Managing COVID on campus presented a new social compact,” Aoun said. “You agreed to take certain steps. In exchange, you paved the way for a successful, uninterrupted, school year. Throughout all these challenges, you had one guiding star: Your desire to be together.”

Aoun shared a final lesson about the urgency of seizing opportunities for justice when they arise.

Referring to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Aoun said, “One of the most consequential events of the past year took place many miles from here. At Northeastern, opportunities to learn and engage can come from anywhere.”

The death of Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white former police officer, touched off protests around the world—including several in Boston—against police violence and racial injustice. Aoun said he saw one such peaceful protest in the city and was struck by the “by the sea of faces—of every color and background—who seized the urgency of that moment.”

“COVID seemed distant in the face of this fierce new urgency,” he said. “The fight for social justice and racial equality could not wait. And that’s an important lesson for us all. Historical moments will happen. And when they arrive, we don’t get to wait for other crises to settle down. You did not wait. We need to take responsibility, in the moment, for making the world better.”

Entrusting graduates with taking the lead on tackling broad societal issues including systemic racism, climate change, economic inequality, food insecurity, and even in helping to prevent the next pandemic, Aoun challenged those gathered to “seize the moments when they happen.”

And, Aoun said, if the heart of Northeastern education is experience, then the Class of 2021 “has had an experience that you could never imagine.” 

“It hasn’t been easy. You had to adjust to changes in your classes, your research, your co-ops, your social lives. You had to change plans and cancel trips. But there have been moments of grace, moments of joy, moments of connection.” 

At the end of the ceremony, he charged the Class of 2021 to “take your Northeastern experience and apply it to your passions. Wherever your passions lie.”

He encouraged graduates to keep “the music of Northeastern” in their hearts—then invited Zeke Martin and the Oracle, the very same jazz band Aoun heard playing so many months ago, to take the stage.

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