The pandemic made the CPS class of 2021 double down and remain focused

David Madigan (right), Northeastern’s provost and senior vice president, elbow-bumps a College of Professional Studies master’s graduate as she receives her degree during the ceremony at Matthews Arena. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The pandemic was remembered at the College of Professional Studies’ master’s degree graduation ceremony on Friday as a unifying force that bred a kind of resilience and flexibility that allowed students to bend, but not break, under the pressure of a global health crisis.

“So many important things stopped, or slowed down, or paused these past 18 months, but not you,” said David Fields, who became interim dean of CPS this year.

“It has not broken us,” added Ebony Small, the class of 2021 student speaker, in front of her peers and their cheering families at Matthews Arena. “We did not make it here to this moment merely because we just so happened to survive a global pandemic. We made it here after making the choice to accept the challenge to change.”

Small recounted the early pandemic days of 2020 in her brief commencement address. She said online learning had been entirely new to her, as it was for many others who laughed when she recalled what it was like to transform rooms in their homes into makeshift learning environments.

“We set up bedrooms as classrooms, dens as offices, and living areas as conference rooms,” she said. “It worked.”

Still, despite not being physically present on campus, there was no disruption in being “intellectually present,” with some of her days lasting until nearly midnight. 

What she initially thought of as difficult “mountainous terrain”―being asked by a professor to choose a student partner whom she had never met to collaborate with on papers and Powerpoints―eventually led her to see the value of the exercise when she befriended that student partner.

carl whittaker speaking behind a podium
CPS commencement keynote speaker Carl Whittaker, director of a foundation that seeks to reduce wealth inequality, encouraged the class of 2021 to 'find a way to help a few people get a degree that will improve their lives.' Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“I am thankful to have seen a bigger purpose in that mountain,” Small said.

She was introduced to the podium by Fiona Creed, who, before joining Northeastern as an assistant teaching professor in CPS, worked at the United Nations and at a nonprofit organization that educates students in diplomacy.

“In a globalizing employment world, Ebony has studied and worked in multiple countries, an experience she holds in common with many of you, those who have already done the same, and those who aspire to do so one day,” Creed said in introducing Small, who received a degree in global studies and international relations.

CPS serves the educational needs of students in different walks of life who seek professional degrees―working adults, part-time students, returning students, military veterans returning to higher education, and international students. More than 800 master’s degrees were conferred in 28 programs such as analytics, project management, homeland security, and digital media.

The pandemic 'has not broken us,' says CPS commencement student speaker Ebony Small, who graduated with a master's degree in global studies and international relations. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Fields, the dean, noted the number of students who had already received meaningful experience through a variety of hands-on, experiential learning opportunities.

“We don’t ask anyone to wait until after graduation to start changing the world,” he said. “You’ve already executed meaningful projects for real-world clients ranging from biotech start-ups to neighborhood associations to the United Nations. You already know the deep satisfaction of putting your learning to work on a cause that matters.”    

CPS, he added, is also the home college to more than half of the student veterans, service members, and military family members studying at Northeastern.

“Our student veterans bring … the values of courage, vision, and dedication to the greater good, along with all the experience and know-how you earned through your military service,” he said. “We’re all inspired by your example.”

 Carl Whittaker, the keynote speaker who serves as director of the Massachusetts-based Herb and Maxine Jacobs Foundation that supports educational programs, including some at Northeastern, said the university’s mission since its founding has been to use education as a way to mitigate economic inequality.

 For example, a CPS program known as “A2M” or “Associates to Masters,” offers a pathway for students from a community college associate’s degree through to completion of a bachelor’s at CPS and a master’s degree in biotechnology at Northeastern’s College of Science. A2M graduates can then step into careers in New England’s growing biotech industry.

“The world has so many problems right now, with climate change, a worldwide pandemic, and all the rest,” Whittaker told graduates. “We believe that the best way to shelter yourself and your loved ones from the many world problems is to have a good career and a solid financial position.”

His charge to the class of 2021: “Find a way to help a few people get a degree that will improve their lives.”

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