Strengthened by obstacles overcome, defined by successes in the most challenging of years, Northeastern students and graduate students celebrated 2021 Commencement in a year unlike any other in ceremonies unlike any other.
Seated in chairs spread across the outfield of Boston’s historic Fenway Park in coronavirus-mandated distanced rows, waving to parents and friends in the grandstand, and from a stage facing the Northeastern logo-bedecked home plate, they told stories of resilience and growth.
“Think about everything you’ve accomplished, and how that’s shaped who you are today,” Nathan Hostert, who received a bachelor’s degree in political science, said at the undergraduate Commencement ceremony Saturday morning.
Neha Jain, who earned her degree in business administration in December 2020, told her classmates that she had traveled to Northeastern from a small town near Delhi because the United States was, she said, “the land of infinite opportunities and a place where I can be whoever I want to be.”
“The first few days of freshmen year were full of self-doubt and anxiety, where I constantly questioned myself if I will ever make it, where the thought of being on co-op gave me chills as I did not even have a resume or any experience in terms of working,” said Jain, “I didn’t know how will I ever fit in with people from cultures I have never even heard of—and how will I ever survive the crazy snow days that everyone kept warning me of.
“But here I am,” said Jain, who completed two “amazing” co-ops, studied abroad in Copenhagen, worked multiple different on-campus jobs and mentored multiple students at Northeastern.
Since January, Jain has been working in Dubai as a client services associate for AlphaSights, an information services company. She had made the long journey back to Boston to participate in this Commencement ceremony, which could not be taken for granted, not after the isolating year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“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, all here at Northeastern.”
Travel restrictions over the last year meant that many international students in Boston weren’t able to return home, a theme discussed by Gagan Dep Prabhu, who received a master’s in engineering, during Sunday morning’s ceremony.
Prabhu described arriving at the Boston campus for the first time after a 20-hour flight from Dubai with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety.
“Being an international student in a different country with diverse cultures, unknown faces and unfamiliar surroundings, worry starts to hit you in the face,” he said.
But completing his degree during the pandemic while so far from home taught him a valuable lesson.
“I believe home is a state of mind where you are at peace,” said Prabhu. “I found home here at Northeastern, and I believe many of us did, but as we propel ourselves into the wildness out there we call life, I have just one piece of advice. Seek your home, and if you have found it, stay connected with it.”
In his speech at the afternoon ceremony, Muhammad Fitrah Pratama Teng touched on themes of diversity, acceptance and resilience in his speech following a year in which diversity and racial equality emerged as a crucial issue.
“My name is Muhammad, and before I traveled to the US for the first time, some friends warned me about islamophobia, especially for people with the name Muhammad. I was so afraid at that time,” said Teng, who received a master’s degree in engineering and is looking forward to working on sustainable building systems both in America and in his home country of Indonesia.
“Since the first date I started as a student on this campus, I never experienced any discrimination as a Muslim. I tremendously appreciate that,” Teng said.
For Danielle Guibord and her father Ron, arriving early at Fenway Park on Saturday was an opportunity to soak in the momentous occasion at one of their favorite places.
“We’re really big Red Sox fans. We’ve been going to games for a while,” said Guibord, who received bachelor’s in psychology. “It’s nice to make more memories here.”
Mike Stack, who received his law degree, said the sunlit Fenway Park ceremony on Sunday represented many milestones for him personally and for Northeastern students as a whole.
“Being here in person makes all the difference,” said Stack, who snapped selfies in the venerable ballpark with his mother Marylin as they celebrated his graduation and her Mother’s Day. “I feel like we’re almost back to normal. It feels like a good bookend.”
The theme of transformation ran through Hostert’s speech at the undergraduate ceremony on Saturday morning. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, noted 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,” said Hostert, who came to Northeastern from Wichita, Kan., and was graduating with a bachelor’s in political science.
Hostert asked his fellow graduates to think back to who they were when they first arrived at Northeastern.
“And now think about everything you’ve accomplished at Northeastern, and how that’s shaped who you are today,” he said. “For me, that person is a less insecure gay kid, who’s co-oped at the city, state, and federal levels of government, and who loves biking to parks and dancing with friends.”
He spoke of the trauma caused by the pandemic, and all the ways that he and his classmates have been forced to learn and grow in order to deal with the societal issues that their generation have inherited.
“What an opportunity we have then to go out and fix those problems that are so deeply ingrained in our policies, in our communities, our industries and also in ourselves,” Hostert said. “Whether you are a computer scientist or a life scientist, an artist or an engineer, a social worker or a small-business owner, this is our chance. We have got to go fix this. And quite honestly I can’t think of a better group of people to do it.
“So let’s take all of our Northeastern experiences, along with the network of peers and mentors and friends that we have made here, and let’s go make the world a better place,” concluded Hostert. “Let’s make a new normal that we can all be proud of.”
Eva Botkin-Kawacki and Peter Ramjug contributed to this story.