President Joseph E. Aoun challenges the Class of 2022 to celebrate ‘the Northeastern advantage’

Photo by Matthew Modoono/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.

The word “commencement” technically means beginning. But Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, told graduating students, “Your journeys have already begun.”

As Aoun addressed thousands of graduates of the Class of 2022 and their guests gathered in Fenway Park on Friday for the university’s Commencement exercises, he spoke of common adages typically shared at such a moment. 

“At commencement ceremonies all over the world, speakers in fancy gowns like mine tell graduates: ‘Life cannot be scripted. You will reinvent yourself many times. You will learn more from failure than success,’” Aoun said. “These are wise words. But for you, they are old news.”

Instead, as he looked out over the rows of graduates filling the baseball field and the crowds in the stands, Aoun shared anecdotes about how Northeastern graduates had already embodied these aphorisms through what he termed, “the Northeastern advantage. Intentional engagement with the world. Listening. Learning. And doing.”

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The value of experience, Aoun said, isn’t just about learning what you like or want. It’s also about learning what you don’t want. One door closing, he said, can lead to “a door you didn’t even know existed.” 

“How many of you reinvented your classroom learning because you returned from co-op with new perspectives?” Aoun asked the graduates, eliciting cheers and whoops. “Experience transformed your knowledge into real mastery and understanding—even wisdom. Many of you implemented these new perspectives in ventures and social entrepreneurship. So you won’t merely reinvent yourselves; you will reinvent the world around you.”

Facing failure is an essential part of finding success, Aoun said, addressing another commencement cliché. Students in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, he said, have especially learned the power of adapting to an unscripted situation: They are required to take a theater course on improvisation. 

“Some of you were reluctant at the beginning. But you gave it a try,” Aoun said. “You shared with me that this experience helped you think on your feet. Listen deeply. React in real time. Understand your audience.”

The style of improv taught particularly emphasizes failure as success, he said. It’s called “clowning.” And when a clown falls or fails at something, it elicits laughter from the audience. That’s success.

Immediately before Aoun’s speech, he had shown the crowd his own experience with clowning. In a video projected on the ballpark’s jumbotron, the president is seen wearing virtual reality goggles and wandering around campus narrowly missing many mishaps—which the Husky mascot Paws instead experiences. In slapstick style, Paws falls down many times, from a tumble down the stairs to a splash into the koi pond on campus. 

“Life is largely improvised, more reality show than scripted production. Your dramatic arc will be shaped by setbacks as well as successes. Despite your most careful planning, you will sometimes fall clownishly flat,” Aoun told the graduates. “But your Northeastern experiences prepared you to stand up again. To move forward. To adapt.”

The Class of 2022 has extensive experience adapting, the university president said. “Learning, creating, and working in more than 140 countries,” he said. “You’ve adapted to countless new workplaces, cultures, and environments. When the pandemic interrupted your Northeastern experience, you adapted.”

In addition to grappling with a pandemic, the graduates have faced many challenges, Aoun acknowledged, from “an important racial reckoning” to “a brutal war taking place in real time.”

“There’s another line you’ll hear at graduation ceremonies: ‘We’re counting on your generation to solve the world’s problems.’ That line has never sounded very fair to me,” he said. “But it rings truer than ever. … What gives me hope, throughout these challenges, is you.”

Aoun paused his speech and asked the graduates to wave flags representing different places around the world that represented something special to them. As cheers broke out from the crowd, the flags fluttered like birds over the graduates, flashing bright against their black robes and caps.

“That is one of my favorite moments at Commencement,” he said. “The sea of colors, of movement, of our shared humanity.”

It’s a moment that encapsulates your collective experience at Northeastern, Aoun said. 

“It also represents the collective impact you already had on the world,” he continued. “Your global experiences have taken you far beyond the clichés of commencement speeches. These experiences will make all the difference as you lead organizations, mentor new generations, and create works of vision and impact. Your entrepreneurship will transform society. Your inventions will change the course of tomorrow.”

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