Northeastern undergraduate Commencement: Chobani CEO urges Class of 2022 to challenge things that make them ‘uncomfortable in the world’

Photo by Billie Weiss for 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.

As fireworks popped behind Fenway Park, 4,200 of Northeastern University’s newest alumni turned to see 24,000 of their closest friends and family cheer raucously in celebration of their accomplishments.

The adoring fans who filled the stadium—rooting not for the Red Sox, but for the Huskies—held up giant cards that together spelled out “CONGRATS NU 2022,” sending Northeastern’s newly minted graduates into the world with an appropriately huge celebration.

The university’s 120th Commencement exercises, held on May 13, was the second at Boston’s iconic Fenway Park. It was a daylong affair, with a ceremony for graduate students in the morning and another for undergraduate students in the evening. Both celebrations marked the final chapter in a story filled with unexpected twists, challenging plot points, and heroic achievement by the Class of 2022.

“During your years at Northeastern, you experienced a global pandemic. You lived through—and led—an important racial reckoning that forced all of us to listen, learn, and act. Today, we see a brutal war taking place in real time. Around the clock, we are bearing witness to all of the aggression and atrocity that wars

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern enters the undergraduate 2022 Commencement ceremony at Boston’s Historic Fenway Park. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

bring. We are also reminded that freedom, democracy, and self-determination are precious and worth fighting for,” Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, told undergraduates during his address. “What gives me hope, throughout these challenges, is you. All of you, with your Northeastern experiences, ready to shape the future. To make it better. More peaceful. More sustainable. More just.”

Northeastern’s newest graduates shared that mission with Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and chief executive of Chobani, who delivered Friday’s undergraduate Commencement address. 

Ulukaya—who walked to the podium to chants of “Hamdi! Hamdi! Hamdi!” from students in the crowd—immigrated to the United States from eastern Turkey in 1994 with $3,000 to his name. But he soon transformed an abandoned New York yogurt factory into the home of the bestselling Greek yogurt in the country.

And he did it, he told members of the Class of 2022, by running a business that was good to employees and the community.

“As we started to grow, we hired everyone that we could. I realized an hour away, there was a community of refugees who were having a hard time finding jobs,” Ulukaya said. “I said, ‘Let’s hire them.’”

People told Ulukaya that it was a mistake to hire refugees, that consumers would boycott Chobani. At the very least, the naysayers told him, don’t talk about hiring refugees. 

“I said, ‘If I’m going to lose everything, I’m going to speak the truth!’” he recalled. “That’s what we did. We hired a few refugees, and then we hired more, and we hired more. Today, we are the leading brand of Greek yogurt in America—and we have hundreds and hundreds of immigrants and refugees working for us in Idaho and upstate New York.”

Now, with the creation of the nonprofit organization Tent Partnership for Refugees, Ulukaya is mobilizing other business owners to follow his lead. What started with “a few” business partnerships now includes more than 220 companies committed to hiring and training refugees, he said.

There’s still a long way to go, Ulukaya said, describing his recent trip to the Poland-Ukraine border. Traveling with the United Nations High Commissioner

Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of leading Greek yogurt brand Chobani speaks at the Northeastern University undergraduate 2022 Commencement ceremony at Boston's Historic Fenway Park. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

for Refugees—the UN agency dedicated to protecting refugees—Ulukaya witnessed firsthand the fear and devastation wrought by the Russian war in Ukraine, he said.

He rushed to help an elderly woman carry two heavy bags she’d brought with her. The woman, Ulukaya recalled, was also guiding her son, who was having a hard time walking. Ulukaya helped the pair get food and tea, then guided them toward a bus that would take them to safety in Poland. Looking back as they boarded the bus, Ulukaya shared a warm smile with the woman.

“The smile I saw on her face was the best gift, and it came from something so uncomfortable,” he said. “But I didn’t turn away, and I promise you that there is nothing more rewarding than showing up in the world for other people, no matter how hard it may be.”

Adwoa Sefah, who graduated on Friday with a bachelor’s degree in cell and molecular biology, touched upon one of the major challenges she and her classmates faced during their undergraduate careers: the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adwoa Sefah, who graduated on Friday with a bachelor’s degree in cell and molecular biology, touched upon one of the major challenges she and her classmates faced during their undergraduate careers: the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Billie Weiss/Northeastern University

But, she said, rather than letting it control their experience, the Class of 2022 “worked in new ways to accomplish our goals.”

“My story is not shaped by the pandemic. Our story is instead filled with chapters about exciting co-ops and dialogues and study abroad programs, long lines at Rebecca’s for delicious breakfast sandwiches—RIP!—Churchill smoothies, 1 a.m. El Jefe’s runs—or Qdoba for the Qdoba lovers—and all-nighters at Snell Library: shared moments we’ll treasure.”

Sefah reflected on her exciting journey at Northeastern, filled with lifelong friends and personal growth as a student, colleague, and an “engaged member of society.”

As they embark on a new journey, she encouraged her classmates to “carry on the creative and innovative spirit of this university,” to “spread kindness, compassion, empathy, and inclusion,” and to “experiment.”

“At Northeastern, we have learned to be resilient and relentlessly curious,” Sefah said. “We didn’t always have things figured out as students, and, trust me, we will not always have them figured out as graduates. But through the life cycle of learning and experience, we will always find new ways to be the problem-solvers our world needs.”

During the Commencement exercises, Aoun presented honorary doctorate degrees to Donna Shalala, a former Congresswoman and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services as well as the president of three universities; and Freeman A. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Shalala received a Doctor of Humane Letters and Public Service, and Hrabowski received a Doctor of Humane Letters. 

Amin J. Khoury also received the Presidential Medallion at the ceremony on Friday. The university’s highest honor, it symbolizes excellence, commitment, and contribution, and is a permanent representation of the holder’s dedication to advancing Northeastern. Khoury, who founded the multi-billion-dollar company BE Aerospace, is the name behind the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern, and a university trustee.

Finally, Aoun re-emerged at the podium to deliver his final charge to the Class of 2022.

“As Adwoa said, keep creating, learning, and experimenting, but always with empathy and inclusion. Let compassion guide you in all things. You are the starring players,” he said, before teeing up a special performance by various Northeastern music groups.

The award-winning Nor’easters a cappella group sung a rousing rendition of the university’s alma mater that transitioned seamlessly into a celebratory, upbeat, original song all about the Northeastern experience. 

Studded throughout the park, members of the Kinematix dance group and the Northeastern pep band joined in to perform the OneRepublic hit, “I Lived” while the brand-new alumni danced and waved their flags from their seats. 

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