‘You are the benchmark,’ Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun tells inaugural Senior Leadership Award recipients

group of 9 students with gold sashes holding certificates
The inaugural Senior Leadership Award recipients were honored for their service to the Northeastern community. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

It was an intimate setting befitting their years of service. At a long table in a small room overseeing the Boston campus, interspersed among President Joseph E. Aoun and seven members of his Northeastern leadership team, sat nine exceptional students who will be graduating this weekend.

They were the inaugural recipients of Northeastern’s Senior Leadership Awards.

“What is phenomenal is how they have been able to lead by giving back,” said Aoun, who drove the group discussion throughout the two-hour luncheon on Tuesday at Egan Research Center. “They are very diverse in their interests and their backgrounds and their achievements.”

The new award celebrates a highly select group of seniors not only for their service to the Northeastern community but also for their potential to support and expand the university’s global network while deepening its impact worldwide.

Aoun asked each of the recipients to introduce themselves and discuss their achievements at Northeastern, including their numerous global experiences: 

  • Joe Blanchet (who is graduating with a degree in bioengineering and biomedical engineering) is a member of the University Honors Program. He participated in a Dialogue of Civilizations to Italy and was part of Northeastern’s Presidential Ambassador Corps representing Aoun at events and activities.
  • Damian Lee (economics and political science) has sung at a variety of university events. He has been a Torch Scholar and member of Northeastern’s Black Student Association and Student Government Association. He has been part of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity and the Northeastern Black Pre-Law Society.
  • Amanda Mangano (biochemistry) is a member of Tri Beta Biological Honor Society, Psi Chi Psychology Honor Society and Phi Delta Epsilon Professional Medical Fraternity. She has been a presidential ambassador, a College of Science peer ambassador, a Community Service and Civic Engagement Alternative Breaks communications and marketing coordinator, a Biochemistry Club member and a GlobeMed member.
  • Breanna McClarey (criminal justice and political science) is co-founder and former public relations chair of the Northeastern Amnesty International chapter and former president of Distilled Harmony a cappella and a Husky ambassador. She belongs to the NU Cultural and Language Learning Society, Northeastern Husky Outing Club and Northeastern Downhillers Ski and Snowboard Club.
  • Lei Nishiuwatoko (international affairs) has served as president (in addition to other leadership roles) for Northeastern’s United Nations Association. She has been a visiting student at University of Oxford, a visiting researcher at the United Nations office in Geneva and a research assistant at Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative.
  • Benjamin Ockert (cybersecurity and business administration) has been a member of Nor’easters a cappella and a player on the club water polo team. He has been a member of Northeastern Blockchain Association, Phi Delta Theta and Northeastern Event Management.
  • Madison Oppenheim (pharmacy) has been a presidential ambassador, a member of the Student Philanthropy Council and a Women Who Empower ambassador. She has been a Husky Ambassador, a Bouvé Ambassador and volunteered to teach health to high school students with Peer Health Exchange. 
  • Valerie Robert (computer science and political science) has won a Women Who Empower Innovator Award and served as president of Women’s Interdisciplinary Society of Entrepreneurship, as well as president, founder, editor-in-chief and CEO of The Circuit.
  • Coleman Stucke (business administration), who is graduating in three years, has been a player on the men’s basketball team. He has been a community mentor,  a soup kitchen volunteer at St. Francis House and a Peer Tutor.

“Every single one of you talked about something you did where you were taking a leadership role, and when we were looking through potential recipients, that was the common thread that kept coming through,” said Michael Armini, senior vice president for external affairs. “My general sense about it is that you’re just getting started. And maybe we should all reconvene in 10 years and see what you’re leading at that point because it’s going to be pretty amazing.”

Aoun suggested that the nine student leaders reconvene annually—and assist in choosing the next class of awardees.

“You are the benchmark,” Aoun said to the group. 

Aoun, along with the senior vice presidents, presented each student with a golden sash (to be worn at Commencement) and a framed certificate.

The senior vice presidents spoke of how these student leaders had made the most of their opportunities. Mary Ludden, senior vice president for global network and strategic initiatives, noted that she and her fellow senior university leaders aspire to create meaningful impact around the world.

“There are no greater stewards of that aspiration than the students at this table,” Ludden said. “It’s such a privilege to be here today. And I agree: We need to get back together.”

The students said they were in favor of continuing the conversation.

Aoun, explaining that “the ideal” for students is to be engaged with the world, wanted to hear of their backgrounds and how they had grown during their time at Northeastern.

“I’m finally in a place where I’m confident in who I am and what I’ve done,” said Blanchet, who will be continuing his work as an associate business system analyst for the fitness-wearable startup WHOOP, a professional relationship that began with a co-op. “And this award has really been the cherry on top of my entire Northeastern experience. So it’s been really, really cool to not only be confident in who I am but have other people also be confident.”

A large part of the conversation was driven by Aoun’s desire to hear the students’ greatest concerns moving forward. The conversation ranged from artificial intelligence and ChatGPT to issues of privacy, health care, politics, climate change, the global economy, the U.S.-China relationship and the needs of minority entrepreneurs. 

“We have to get our network to work on the issues they raised,” Aoun said afterward. “Those are the issues that this generation is going to work on and we have to be the support team.”

Nishiuwatoko said she was heartened by the exchange of ideas.

“It made us feel very involved,” Nishiuwatoko said. “We weren’t being looked upon as students but more as colleagues and people who have things to contribute.”

Ian Thomsen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at i.thomsen@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @IanatNU.