Northeastern graduate Commencement: Leila Fadel tells Class of 2022 to ‘write the rest of your story’

Graduate students fling their caps in the air.
Caps were flying Friday morning at the Commencement ceremony for graduate students at Fenway Park. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

This is part of our coverage of Northeastern’s 2022 Commencement exercises. For more information, including a livestream, photos, and live coverage throughout the day, visit our dedicated Commencement page.

Embrace your fears, offered award-winning journalist Leila Fadel, the featured speaker at Northeastern University’s Commencement ceremony for graduate students on Friday morning at Fenway Park in Boston.

“Why am I talking about fear on such a hopeful day?” asked Fadel, a Northeastern School of Journalism graduate and a host of Morning Edition, the flagship morning show for National Public Radio. “In moments of fear I found urgency and a clear understanding of why I had chosen to give a platform to those who needed it most. Fear can be debilitating, but it can also be our greatest motivator for good in this world even when it feels too hard, too big, too unsolvable.”

The undergraduate ceremony was slated for Friday evening at the 110-year-old ballpark, which for this splendid day was wreathed with emblems of Northeastern perched along the majestic outfield walls, covering home plate and the pitcher’s mound, and glowing from the electric signs that ringed the immaculate green field.

Themes of perseverance and hope elevated the Commencement ceremony for graduate students. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, asked the graduates for three rounds of applause: for the family members, partners, and friends who helped them reach this moment; for the faculty and staff who supported them; and for themselves, for this achievement they had earned.

He dispensed with the lessons that are so often trotted out at Commencement ceremonies: Life cannot be scriptedYou will reinvent yourself many timesYou will learn more from failure than success.

“These are wise words,” Aoun told the graduates. “But for you, they are old news.” The “Northeastern advantage” enabled them to take on all challenges, he said.

The themes of perseverance from Aoun and Fadel were bookended by a message of merited hope—earned during the COVID-19 pandemic—from student speaker Aniyah Smith, who graduated with a master of business administration degree with concentrations in marketing and analytics. 

“The last two years were hard,” Smith said. “I want to remind you that while intelligence, ambition, and perseverance have brought you to this moment, hope is one of the most important things we have.”

It was a morning of inspiring music, of colorful flags waved by students representing dozens of nations, of lifelong dreams realized and reimagined on behalf of new ambitions.

Fadel shared her story of how she found herself covering wars in the Middle East early in her career as a reporter with news services and newspapers. Co-ops at Northeastern helped her secure her initial job with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas.

“One month into my very first job as a professional journalist,” Fadel said, “I walked into my boss’ office and asked her to send me to Iraq to cover the war.”

She was sent back out to the newsroom with implicit orders to earn more experience. Months later, Fadel was on a plane to Iraq at age 23.

Embrace your fears, offered award-winning journalist Leila Fadel, the featured speaker at Northeastern University’s Commencement ceremony for graduate students on Friday morning at Fenway Park in Boston. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“I was afraid,” she admitted, recalling her first view of the exploded, burned-out cars alongside the airport road that she would travel many times over the years ahead.

She spoke of the uprisings against autocracy that she would cover in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. She spoke of counting bodies at a massacre of pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo. She spoke of a lawyer in Benghazi, devoted to the dream of a civil society, who was assassinated by Libyan extremists during the reign of Moaammar Gaddafi.

“She told me that she and others still had hope for a new Libya, a better Libya, a Libya they imagined when they chose to revolt against a dictator,” Fadel recalled. “Today, others carry on her legacy.”

Fadel did not mention the many honors she would earn along the way, beginning with a George R. Polk award in 2007 for her coverage in Iraq. In Egypt, her reports of the 2013 coup would earn her the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club. Four years later, Fadel would receive a Gracie award from the Alliance For Women In Media for her story of a single mother in Tunisia fighting to protect her younger daughters from being brainwashed and enlisted by ISIS, as her two oldest daughters had been.

The fears she felt while arriving in Iraq in a plane that corkscrewed its landing to avoid potential missiles “did not stop me,” Fadel said. “I knew that I could bring a different approach to our reporting in Iraq, infuse it with the humanity that is so often missing in reporting on conflict.”

Smith’s remarks prefaced those sentiments from the student’s point of view. As she looked out among the rows of graduates, Smith was reminded of how she had been inspired by the perseverance of this class during the pandemic. 

She urged them to take the next step.

“Have a vision—yet be open to change,” said Smith, who started a business of accessible cosmetics, Push Beauty, earning her an inaugural Innovator Award from Northeastern’s Women Who Empower inclusion and entrepreneurship initiative. “Your vision for how life should go will evolve as you have new experiences, as you immerse yourself in different environments and cultures, and as you grow. Use those experiences to develop and push yourself. Continue to be the extraordinary and ambitious thought leaders you are.”

During the Commencement ceremony, Aoun presented honorary doctorate degrees to Sandra L. Fenwick, former chief executive officer of Boston Children’s Hospital; and the Rev. Willie Bodrick, senior pastor of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

In the warm setting of Fenway, as the surrounding Boston towers emerged from the bedclothes of the morning fog, the graduates were reminded of all that they had overcome, and the strengths, skills, and perspective they had taken on along the way. 

Fadel urged the graduates to confront harsh realities from the standpoint of strength and self-belief.

“What we will do—what you will do—those pages of our lives are blank,” Fadel said. “We get to be the author. Do not let the fear of what has happened, what is happening, stop you from pursuing the hope of what could be. You are that hope.

“So today, graduates, congratulations,” she continued. “You are equipped and ready. It’s time to go write the rest of your story. Do it thoughtfully, do it purposefully, and never let fear of failure stop you from trying to be the difference we want to see in this world.

“Whatever you choose, graduates, be bold.”

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