The crowd at Fenway Park filled up the stadium with cheers on Saturday in a celebration of the graduates of Northeastern University Class of 2021. And, after a year turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, some things didn’t change at all—newly minted graduates tossed their caps as the university pep band played them out of the stadium, and posed for photos with proud family, friends, and loved ones in the stands.
This year, students and families took advantage of the ceremony’s iconic backdrop to capture moments in front of the “Green Monster” left field wall, the red seat commemorating Ted Williams’ legendary home run, and the infield adorned with the Northeastern seal.
“Pause, look around at this stadium, and celebrate this moment,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the graduates, their families and friends at the historic baseball stadium and watching online.
“As you look around, know that you’re looking at the future. This is a pivotal moment for each of you,” she said in a videotaped speech. “You become who you are because of pivotal moments in your education and your training.”
Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, charged graduates to “take your Northeastern experience and apply it to your passions. Wherever your passions lie.”
“And I urge you not to pursue these passions alone,” he said. “What we have learned this year especially is how the Northeastern community supports and uplifts us all. Remember that you will always be part of this community. Wherever your journey takes you, Northeastern is your lifelong home.”
More than 3,000 graduates were honored at the university’s 119th Commencement exercises, which took place over the course of two ceremonies at the outdoor ballpark in order to adhere to state and federal public health guidelines designed to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Speakers at the ceremonies lowered their masks to address the crowd, then looped them back over their ears before returning to their seats.
While the pandemic was never far from anyone’s mind—the graduates’ traditional garb of caps and gowns were complemented this year by face masks, and a crew of people descended upon the stadium to sanitize the seats between ceremonies—a sense of gratitude and elation carried the day as graduates, family, friends, and loved ones celebrated together, in person.
Graduates on the field waved exaggeratedly to family and friends in the stands, or gave their guest one last hug before turning to center field for the main event.
Sylvia Dyakova and her son, Dean, took selfies behind home plate. Originally from Bulgaria but living in California since her son was a baby, Sylvia Dyakova said she was filled with immense pride being able to see the crowning moment of her son’s academic achievement.
“Education has always been a priority in our family, so he really worked hard through the years,” she said. “It’s that tremendous feeling that every parent has when you see your child accomplish something big.”
In a rousing address to graduating students, Aoun 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. I want to thank the entire Northeastern community—especially our new graduates—for making this past year successful,” he said.
Many 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.
As graduates and their one guest made their way into Fenway Park, the mood outside the ballpark was also festive. On Jersey Street, which is closed to cars, a group of supporters shouted to one gowned graduate, “That’s my grad!” and howls of support, “woo! Woo!” echoed down the street.
Walensky and others, including Patrick O. Brown, founder and chief executive officer of Impossible Foods; Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker; and Boston Mayor Kim Janey also delivered remarks by video. Each congratulated the new graduates on making it through a year filled with uncertainty—and doing so with aplomb.
“Virtually everything about what you expected your college experience to be was turned upside down in March of 2020, and has pretty much stayed that way ever since,” Baker said. He specifically congratulated graduates for “working their way through what was a profoundly difficult year because of the pandemic.”
Janey echoed Baker’s sentiment. “Your perseverance and resilience in completing your co-ops and your coursework under extremely difficult circumstances should be applauded,” she said. “Your commitment to staying safe helped our city weather the storm.”
Neha Jain and Nathan Hostert, two graduating students who addressed their peers on Saturday, embodied that sense of perseverance, resilience, and commitment.
“I knew so little of the world when I initially joined Northeastern,” Jain said. “I learned how to love, how to feel joy, how to set goals, and how to foster a sense of community here at Northeastern.
“I will truly miss and cherish my time here, whether it was the strolls at the Fence, or the 2 a.m. burritos from Amelias, the unending group meetings at Curry to the free Ben & Jerry’s ice creams in summer,” Jain said. “The painful walk to the classroom in snowstorms to the concerts at afterHOURS. The Bello Bello sandwich from Rebecca’s to the midnight breakfast at Steast [Stetson East].
“Northeastern,” said Jain, “you will be missed.”
The theme of transformation also ran through Hostert’s speech. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, said Hostert, his generation had already grown accustomed to change.
“We have revolted against so many of the ideas that we grew up with, becoming more comfortable talking about things like mental health, sexuality, and privilege,” he said. “We have already accepted that we’ll have to spend our whole lives fighting a different once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis: climate change.”
Graduates at the ceremony on Saturday were mailed their diplomas instead of queueing up to receive them in person as in past years; another COVID-19 precaution.
Both Walensky and Brown charged the graduates with continuing to be global citizens as they embark on their careers.
“Our society and our planet are facing many difficult problems and we all need to recognize that nobody owns the job of solving them any more than you do,” Brown said in his Commencement address to the graduates.
Walensky encouraged the graduates to be undaunted in the face of obstacles. Sitting on her desk at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, she said, is a plaque. It says, simply, “hard things are hard.”
“It’s true,” she said. “The challenges we face are often hard. But we can do hard things. You can do hard things.”
Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Ian Thomsen, and Peter Ramjug contributed reporting.