Graduates from the Northeastern University Class of 2021 celebrated their hard-earned achievements at Commencement ceremonies Saturday and Sunday at Fenway Park, the beloved stadium near the Boston campus where the open-air setting enabled them to gather once more, to cheer and be cheered, and to imagine brighter days to come.
The students were spaced appropriately across the outfield like so many All-Stars in their uniform caps and gowns as they attended ceremonies brimming with inspiring messages that were altogether empathetic, triumphant, and impassioned.
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 these unique outdoor gatherings to be held.
“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.”
After a year turned upside down by the pandemic, some things hadn’t changed at all—the newest class of graduates tossing their caps as the university pep band played to accompany them out into the world, but not before they posed for photos with proud family, friends, and loved ones in the stands.
What was different this time were the backdrops of the past academic year and its culmination on the playgrounds of this verdant 109-year-old baseball museum—an ideal setting for a university that renews and reinvent the traditions of higher education.
“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 and their loved ones who were at the ballpark or 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.”
Students and families captured moments in front of the “Green Monster” wall in left field, the red seat commemorating Ted Williams’ legendary home run, and the circle of home plate adorned with the Northeastern seal.
More than 3,000 students were honored at two undergraduate ceremonies on Saturday as a sense of gratitude and elation carried the day. Among them were Dean Dyakova and his mother, Sylvia, who 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.”
The College of Professional Studies held its Commencement exercises on Saturday night. On Sunday, the sun shone bright as Northeastern graduate students were feted with two ceremonies that coincided with Mother’s Day. Some graduates attended both days — 177 students who received both a bachelor’s and master’s in the PlusOne program.
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.”
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 the 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.
Aoun celebrated efforts by the entire Northeastern community that underwent more than 1 million COVID-19 tests in order to keep the campus open for the 2020-21 academic year.
“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. Many attended virtually from Matthews Arena on the university’s Boston campus, while video screens at Fenway filled with live shots of graduates and their families celebrating from India, Venezuela, Nigeria, and elsewhere.
Graduates at the ceremonies were mailed their diplomas instead of queueing up to receive them in person as in past years—another COVID-19 precaution.
As graduates and their one guest made their way into Fenway Park, the mood outside the ballpark was also festive. A group of supporters on nearby Jersey Street shouted to one gowned graduate, “That’s my grad!” and howls of “Woo! Woo!” support rang out.
Three other public figures joined Walensky in delivering remarks by video: Patrick O. Brown, founder and chief executive officer of Impossible Foods; Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker; and Boston Mayor Kim Janey. Each congratulated the new graduates on making it through a year filled with uncertainty—and doing so with aplomb.
“Virtually everything 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 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 undergraduate 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.”
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, said Hostert, his generation had already grown accustomed to change.
“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,” he said.
Northeastern emerged as a home for students, said Gagan Dep Prabhu of Dubai, who spoke on behalf of graduate students at the morning ceremony on Sunday. He urged classmates to search for the same sense of belonging wherever their lives lead them.
“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,” said Prabhu, who earned a master’s in engineering management.
Muhammad Fitrah Pratama Teng of Ternate, Indonesia, who spoke on behalf of graduate students on Sunday afternoon, noted that the “Protect The Pack” lessons of inclusivity and concern for others will not be forgotten.
“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,” said Teng, who has earned a master’s in sustainable building systems.
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 that reads, “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.”
Aoun, encouraged by the community spirit that contributed to this triumphal weekend, 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, Eva Botkin-Kowacki, and Peter Ramjug contributed reporting.