From Boston to San Francisco, student speaker for graduate commencement used ‘Northeastern experience’ to discover a new career

headshot of Kristine Umeh
Kristine Umeh will be the graduate student commencement speaker on Sunday at Fenway Park in Boston. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

Graduate commencement student speaker Kristine Umeh called it a “COVID reckoning.”

As the world shut down in spring 2020, Umeh was graduating from Northeastern University with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a minor in Chinese. But her experience in co-ops and internships made her realize that she wanted to pursue something else. Instead, the technology world beckoned.

“I thought to myself ‘the technology industry is really booming right now, and I want to get a chance to be part of that experience,’” Umeh said.

Thanks to the Align Master of Science in Computer Science program at Northeastern University’s Khoury College of Computer Sciences, her inexperience in the field was not a problem. 

“I decided I had nothing to lose by getting that education,” Umeh said.  “And it was also at Northeastern, so I had the chance to be a double Husky, so I thought, ‘yeah, that sounds fun.’”

Umeh will deliver a speech about her experience during graduate commencement exercises at Fenway Park at 10 a.m. on Sunday, May 7.

Hers was a unique experience.

Originally from Nigeria, Umeh came to Northeastern in 2015 as a first-year student at the age of 16, having skipped a grade in elementary school. She pursued chemical engineering as she said she was attracted to the opportunity to form the curriculum as she progressed. She also remembered singing Chinese songs and learning Chinese words in elementary school, so decided to further explore that language and culture. Finally, she took acting and music classes, ending up just short of a music performance major. 

“I had friends at other universities in the U.S., friends in the United Kingdom and Nigeria who didn’t have that flexibility in their schedule,” Umeh said. 

In fact, Umeh said it was flexibility and creativity that attracted her to the technology field.

“It sounds cliche, but you really can do anything: coding, be in Cloud, be a project manager, do back-end development,” Umeh said. “I like understanding what’s going on in terms of technology. A lot of people don’t know what’s going on, and it’s important.”

People talk about artificial intelligence and ChatGPT taking over the world, and a lot of people are wowed by it,” Umeh continued. “But it’s just an algorithm, it’s just a code. It’s an algorithm and a model and it can be better.”

But there was one problem with pursuing tech. Umeh didn’t have any computer science background. 

That’s where the Align program came in. 

Align provides a direct pathway to a master’s of science in data science or computer science for students from all undergraduate backgrounds—no prior experience is required. 

Umeh enrolled in September 2020 and moved to California to attend the program at Northeastern University’s San Francisco campus. 

“During undergrad, I had the chance to travel a lot, and I really appreciated it. It gave me the certainty that I could go to the global campuses,” Umeh said. “So, it wasn’t hard for me to make the decision to leave Boston and move to California because I had that experience.”

Her experiences in co-ops also gave her confidence.

First, she had the confidence to change career paths.

“I feel like if I didn’t go to Northeastern and have co-ops, I would have had the realization that I didn’t want to do (chemical engineering) until much later,” Umeh said. 

Co-ops also gave her confidence that she would succeed in her new field.

“I had confidence that I would succeed in this program because I knew they had co-ops embedded and that I would get a chance to work in this industry,” Umeh said.

In fact, her second co-op as a graduate student, at Lululemon, led to her current part-time job with the company.

And she has the confidence to give a graduation speech, insisting she is not nervous. 

“I really have a gift in public speaking and it really comes naturally to me,” Umeh said. “I always enjoyed giving speeches. I used to be nervous as a child, but now I accept that I have a gift, and I have something to say and that people listen when I speak, so I’ve decided to hone into that craft.”

Umeh said she hoped to share this confidence with all the graduates on Sunday at Fenway. She will share a second speech as the selected student commencement speaker for the Bay Area Commencement celebration for San Francisco and Silicon Valley campuses.

“I want it to be a moment of pride for everybody,” Umeh said. “I hope that people see that first of all, you can be a double Husky without being at the Boston campus, I want people to know about Align … and I want all the graduates at all the colleges to feel accomplished, feel proud of everything they’ve done over the year or two years, because grad school is not easy.”

“But as long as they have this degree, and this Northeastern connection, they are going to go on to accomplish way more than they know,” Umeh said. 

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @MoultonCyrus.