The sun shone bright on a Sunday deep with meaning as Northeastern graduate students were joined at Fenway Park by loved ones in person and in spirit—watching from the stands of the beloved ballpark and online—to celebrate 2021 Commencement across a pair of ceremonies on Mother’s Day.
Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, noted that the ceremonies were a metaphor for the past year as well as a bridge to the future. The sacrifices and investments in personal and public safety that continue to be made by the Northeastern community not only have enabled learning to continue throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but also allowed for these unique gatherings, outdoors and appropriately spaced, to take place on this urban plot of green near the Boston campus.
“The lesson is clear: None of us can live our lives in isolation,” Aoun told the graduates. “We all crave the power of human connection. We all are part of the same human family. What we do individually—good or bad—affects our shared journey.”
The lessons of the journey over the past year will continue to influence the graduates’ lives, Aoun said.
“Building and nourishing a community requires millions of individual acts that culminate in collective power,” he said. “This power goes far beyond reopening Northeastern. Exercise it well, and you can open the world for all humankind.”
The connections between students and family were played out repeatedly on the serendipitously shared occasion of Mother’s Day, which followed morning and afternoon Commencement for undergraduates on Saturday. Kayla Doherty, who earned a master’s in speech language pathology, took in the surroundings of the sun-drenched park before the Commencement ceremony Sunday morning.
“It’s really hitting me just walking in here—everything suddenly seems so real,” Doherty said. “It’s good to be back and feel almost somewhat normal.”
Her mother, Nancy, teared up as she considered the meanings of this Commencement.
“It’s a very emotional day,” Nancy Doherty said. “She’s done such an amazing job these past six years. I just can’t wait to see the future for her.”
Stacy Stern, having earned a doctorate in physical therapy, was grateful for the timing of Commencement and the presence of her mother, Randi, at the ceremony.
“I feel like this is just a great Mother’s Day present for her,” Stern said. “We’re really excited to be here in person. It’s such a difficult year for so many people, so I feel very lucky to be here to celebrate.”
Aoun celebrated efforts by the entire Northeastern community that underwent more than 1 million COVID-19 tests in order to keep the campus open in 2020-21.
“Yes, there are restrictions and limitations—many beyond our control,” Aoun said. “But we found a way. That’s the Northeastern spirit. We traverse boundaries. We overcome obstacles. We believe that every problem has a solution.”
Aoun acknowledged the support of people around the world who were watching the ceremonies online—a unifying necessity borne of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Commencement exercises were held at Fenway Park 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 their straps back over their ears before returning to their seats. Graduates wore personalized face masks to go with their caps and gowns, and a crew of workers sanitized the seats between the morning and afternoon ceremonies.
“Pause, look around at this stadium, and celebrate this moment,” said Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her suggestion was perfectly in sync with the graduates who posed for photos during this rare opportunity to stand on the field of the 109-year-old stadium.
Walensky offered five pieces of advice for the graduates moving forward, including to be inclusive, ask the important questions, and aim big. She encouraged the graduates to build upon the hard work they’d done to overcome this past year.
“Remember, you should be nervous,” Walensky said. “If you are not thinking, even just for a minute, that you might be biting off a bit too much, you are not aiming big enough. And I remind myself of this every single day.”
Patrick O. Brown shared the story of how he launched Impossible Foods in hope of completely replacing the use of animals in the global food system by 2035. It resonated with the dreams of his audience.
“We don’t have a roadmap, and we know we’ll encounter many disappointments and failures on the way to our goal, but we blast ahead,” said Brown, a scientist who became founder and chief executive officer of the environmentally-minded food company. “I’m so optimistic and excited and curious about what the future holds.
“You are about to inherit the best plant in the universe: Please take better care of it than my generation has,” Brown said. “It’s not somebody else’s job. It’s your opportunity. And now, congratulations, you’ve done it—you graduate. Your future is waiting for you. Make it count.”
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker congratulated the graduates for navigating “what was a profoundly difficult year because of the pandemic.
“Virtually everything about what you expected your college experience to be was turned upside down in March of 2020, and it’s pretty much stayed that way ever since,” Baker said. “I do think the fact that you get to have your ceremony at Fenway Park is actually kind of a cool thing.”
Boston Mayor Kim Janey, noting that her father was a 1970 Northeastern graduate, related to the hard work that went into the ceremony—and the investments the Northeastern community made in safety.
“Your perseverance and resilience in completing your co-ops and your coursework under extremely difficult circumstances should be applauded,” Janey said. “I know this wasn’t how you thought your last year-and-a-half would go, but your commitment to staying safe helped our city weather the storm.”
Northeastern emerged as a home for students, said Gagan Dep Prabhu of Dubai, who spoke on behalf of graduate students at the morning ceremony. He urged classmates to search for the same sense of belonging wherever their lives lead them.
“Seek your home, and if you have found it, stay connected with it,” said Prabhu, who earned a master’s in engineering management. “Once you hit that jackpot of self-satisfaction, you will get that freedom to live your life to the fullest, chase the dreams the kid inside you always aspired to accomplish. Or just simply grow as a person.”
And never forget the obstacles that you’ve overcome to earn your 2020-21 degrees, added Prabhu.
“We are a once-in-a-lifetime set of graduates who have fiercely fought through this global pandemic to emerge as winners,” added Prabhu, who was Graduate Student Government president and winner of a College of Engineering Leadership Award in 2020. “Despite all the challenges that were thrown at us, we came out of it alive, more determined than ever. For all of you, it is just the beginning.”
Muhammad Fitrah Pratama Teng of Ternate, Indonesia, who spoke on behalf of students in the afternoon ceremony, noted that the “Protect The Pack” lessons of inclusivity and concern for others will not be forgotten.
“Although we are graduating at an unprecedented moment, we must move forward with our power and responsibility not only for us but also for people around who still need support,” said Teng, who has earned a master’s in sustainable building systems. “This pandemic gave us a lesson that change is inevitable—and we have to embrace it, as acceptance of change makes us more resilient, stronger, and more capable of dealing with life’s difficulties.”
Aoun, encouraged by the spirit that contributed to this triumphant moment, urged the graduates to keep it going.
“I often say that your Northeastern education prepares you to face the unknown,” Aoun said. “Your class, perhaps more than any other, is prepared for whatever comes next.
“I wish you the best of luck,” Aoun said. “Your resilience and your infinite spirit will guide our world to new heights. We are truly in your hands.”
Hillary Chabot and Molly Callahan contributed to this report.