‘Turn up the volume!’ Northeastern graduates loud and proud during 2023 commencement at Fenway Park

Photo by Billie Weiss/Northeastern University

This is part of our coverage of Northeastern University’s 2023 commencement. Northeastern Global News reporters Ian Thomsen, Tanner Stening, Cody Mello-Klein, Alena Kuzub and Cynthia McCormick Hibbert contributed to this story.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun had just given graduates his final charge: “As you reinvent yourselves, embrace your opportunities to explore the world.”

On stage behind him, the a cappella group the Nor’easters sang the final line of the university’s alma mater. The music became louder and the cheers from the crowd even louder.

Emcee Sebastian Chavez da Silva, executive vice president of the Student Government Association, asked the graduates and their guests to sit back, relax and enjoy a very special Northeastern tradition.

Instead, they danced, sang and waved flags from 189 countries.

Sunday’s 121st Northeastern University commencement will go down in history as a pair of high-energy, international-themed celebrations—4,754 graduate students in the morning and 4,643 undergraduates in the afternoon. And it all played out before a combined crowd of over 46,000 on a spectacular spring day in Boston.

After the traditional pomp and circumstance and memorable speeches had concluded, the party was just getting started. Northeastern dance teams rushed the outfield, the pep band followed, poet Chinma Nnadozie-Okananwa emerged from the sea of graduates, and a giant “CONGRATS HUSKIES!” was unfurled from atop the Green Monster.

During the afternoon ceremony, fireworks exploded high into the near-cloudless sky as guests in the stands punctuated the climactic moment by holding up cards that spelled, “WE (HEART) NU 2023.”

And Aoun was at the center of it all. The louder, the better, the president said.

“Throughout your lives when you hear music, turn up the volume. Turn it up to 11!” he said. 

“And when it’s time to dance, don’t dance like no one is watching. Dance like everyone’s watching!”

Graduates take a picture with Northeastern Joseph E. Aoun at Northeastern’s commencement ceremony at Fenway Park. Photo by Adam Glanzman for Northeastern University

Aoun: Mobility, machines and human literacy

During the graduate and undergraduate ceremonies, Aoun told graduates that they are citizens of the world

And opportunity is always in motion, he said.

“Each of you will average more than 12 jobs throughout your lifetime. And you will relocate an average of 12 times,” Aoun said. “The days of living in one place and having the same job for 40 years are ancient history.”

He was introduced by Richard A. D’Amore, chairman of the Board of Trustees, and a comedic video produced in the style of TikTok’s “get ready with me” trend. After taking the podium, he marked the recent passing of former President Jack Curry.

Aoun also spoke about the sweeping changes brought on by developments in artificial intelligence. Some of those changes, he said, will cause disruptions in the job market and how work is performed.

After all, machines don’t weep, Aoun said.

“Machines and artificial intelligence will continue to improve every day,” he said. “These innovations will have a profound impact on all of us. Some will be beneficial, and others will not. There are people calling for society to hit the pause button out of fear that we will lose control of machines.”

Aoun said to be successful in the professional world is to become “robot-proof,” a concept he explores in his 2018 book. In light of the recent developments in AI, Aoun said the need for what he calls “human literacy” takes on even greater importance. 

“It is the ability to create and to connect,” he said. “To sense the mood of a room, to take charge of a team. To desire, achieve, and change the world.”

There are countless ways to exercise our human literacy, Aoun said.  

“Giving assistance to someone lost at the train station,” he said. “Capturing an emotion through color or music. Launching a non-profit to end hunger. Standing with strangers to fight injustice.”

Naficy: Empathy and compassion 

Mariam Naficy, an e-commerce pioneer and serial entrepreneur, delivered the undergraduate commencement address.

Naficy is best known as the founder and chairman of Minted, an online marketplace of design goods created by a global community of independent artists. Today, she is a founder of Heretic Ventures, an incubator launching businesses at the intersection of creators, culture and commerce, focusing on bringing emergent technologies to a broader consumer audience.

Naficy said Minted never would have become the success that it is if she hadn’t embraced “soft skills” like empathy and compassion, on top of her business savvy.

“As I hand-built our community of artists, I would meet with them across the country,” Naficy said. “I developed the empathy to encourage them when they were worried their work was inadequate and congratulated them when they married, had children and experienced great professional success.”

“All of this grew from a much softer skill set than I had imagined would make my career: passion for the product I was making, love for the artists I knew and empathy for the life that others lead,” Naficy continued.

Looking out at the crowd, Naficy said she was impressed by how the graduates had already taken this lesson to heart in so much of their work.

“Whatever your issue is, whether it is challenging world leaders to take immediate action on climate change to pressing for equality for the LGBTQ+ community to demanding stricter gun control laws, you are not accepting the status quo,” Naficy said.

“And I wanted to say to you today, I think you’re right. You’re right to keep pressing, courageous to keep insisting on how you want to live your one wild and precious life.”

Graduates wave flags at Northeastern’s commencement ceremony at Fenway Park. Photo by Adam Glanzman for Northeastern University

Freeland: Does capitalist democracy still work?

Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister, was the speaker for the graduate ceremony Sunday morning. She posed a question to the audience: Does capitalist democracy still work?

“That is the question being posed around kitchen tables, in my country and this one, as parents wonder if our children can count on capitalist democracy’s essential promise of a future more prosperous than our present,” she said.

“It is the question being posed in the muddy and bloodied trenches of Bakhmut, as Ukraine’s brave democrats resist the invading forces of Putin’s dictatorship,” she said. 

Freeland said she believes this age of upheaval has every possibility of becoming a time future historians will describe as the renaissance of democracy.

“An age of renewal of our civilization’s fundamental values and of its fundamental promise,” she said. “Indeed, I believe this will be the essential work of your time, your era.”

Democracy has been undoubtedly playing defense for the past couple of decades, said Freeland, who delivered parts of her speech in French. In addition to English, she also speaks Russian, Ukrainian and Italian.

“We have allowed authoritarian regimes to prey on weaker democracies and to undermine our own democratic institutions,” she said. “We have allowed incomes and opportunities for the middle class to stagnate, and a global plutocracy to emerge.

“And we have allowed our oceans to warm, our glaciers to shrink, and precious species to become extinct.”

Now is the time for democracy to fight back, Freeland said.

“And I know we can do that, because we are already starting to,” she said. 

Four honorary degrees awarded

In addition to Freeland and Naficy, Aoun also conferred honorary doctorates upon Alondra Nelson and Alberto Ibargüen.

A sociologist and author, Nelson is a groundbreaking advocate for scientific discovery and technology innovation that focuses on ethics, racial and gender equity, and access. From early 2021 until February of this year, she served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the newly created position of principal deputy director for science and society.

Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is a visionary who applied the philanthropic power of the foundation’s multibillion-dollar endowment to reimagine daily journalism and the arts in the digital age. Ibargüen was previously the publisher of the Knight Ridder newspapers in Miami when he recognized that the internet would diminish the capacity of traditional newspapers to influence and engage communities.

Freeland was introduced during the morning graduate ceremony by Alan McKim, vice chair of the Board of Trustees, and Aliza Lakhani, dean of Northeastern’s Toronto campus. During the afternoon ceremony, Naficy was escorted by trustee Jean-Pascal Tricoire and introduced by corporator emerita Rhondella Richardson.

Also in the afternoon, Nelson was escorted by vice chair emerita Carole Shapazian and introduced by Hazel Sive, dean of the College of Science. Ibargüen was escorted by trustee Suze Deitch and introduced by James Hackney, dean of the School of Law.

Graduates excited at Northeastern’s commencement ceremony at Fenway Park. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Wu: Advice from her grandparents

Undergraduate student speaker Clara Wu urged fellow graduates to be proud of what they have achieved, cherish their families and turn their knowledge into action.

“Among other privileges, I have an education, and I will not waste it,” said Wu, who was introduced by Chancellor Kenneth W. Henderson.

Wu shared advice she received from her grandparents. One of them taught her to treasure family, support loved ones and lean on them in times of need.

“Sometimes we may need to compromise between family and career, but don’t be affraid to put family first,” Wu said.

The other advised her to stay true to her values and rank priorities accordingly.

“So, when you make a decision, do something that you can still be proud of tomorrow,” she said.

Umeh: Being a Husky is my identity

Graduate student speaker Kristine Umeh recounted the hard work, sleepless nights, group projects and co-ops that led to commencement.

“This journey, which began in the heat of the pandemic for some of us, has become this moment of pride, through our dedication to the Northeastern mission and our commitment to academic excellence,” said Umeh, who was also introduced by Henderson.

“I want to congratulate you all, my peers, on this remarkable achievement,” she said.

Umeh, who earned a master’s degree from the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, is a double Husky, having graduated from Northeastern’s College of Engineering with her bachelor’s degree in 2020.

“Being a Husky has become a central part of my identity,” said Umeh, who is originally from Nigeria.

Madigan: Graduates are sought-after

Provost David Madigan told graduates they have risen above every challenge and surpassed every measure of achievement.

“In the lab, through experiential opportunities, in collaborating with your mentors and classmates, and in the solutions-oriented way you approach your research and scholarship,” he said.

Madigan said these successes are part of the reason why Northeastern graduates are sought-after by organizations around the globe. 

“As scholars, leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists and community citizens, you have raised the bar of excellence—and set an example for others to follow,” he said. “You are what our world needs—smart, empathetic and experienced leaders focused on making an impact.”

Kernan: Thriving global network

Undergraduate alumni speaker Lisa Kernan said Northeastern students have the unique advantage of being part of a thriving global network of accomplished students, alumni and parents living in more than 190 countries.  

“Throughout your time as students, you called upon this community for mentorship, career connections and resources to help you succeed in all that you have accomplished,” said Kernan, a 2016 graduate, who was introduced by Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for advancement.

“Now, as alumni, your shared experiences will bond and unite you to one another in meaningful and everlasting ways,” Kernan said. “I have no doubt that you will nurture the friendships you’ve created with your classmates sitting with you today. These are the connections that will sustain you. Treasure them.”

Two graduates wave their flags at Northeastern’s commencement ceremony at Fenway Park. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Kumar: Passport to the world

MacGillivray also introduced alumni graduate speaker Paresh Kumar, who encouraged the Class of 2023 to build new relationships. 

“A Northeastern degree is a passport to connect with the world,” he said. “Actively pursue connections with fellow alumni across the world and throughout your lives.”

Kumar said Sunday marked the beginning of graduates’ lifelong relationship with their alma mater.

“To the next generation of Northeastern students who will follow, be the mentor, the donor, the champion for them in the ways fellow Huskies empowered your own path and made all the difference,” he said.

“Wherever you are in the world, and in everything you do, you will always stand out as alumni of Northeastern University—recognized for your ambition, persistence, experience and heart.”

Mankaryous: Graduates already giving back

Reanna Mankaryous graduated Sunday with a degree in behavioral neuroscience. For the past year, she has served as the chair of the Senior Year Experience Board. Diploma in hand, she will be leading clinical research in the neurology and autism spectrum disorder lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“We have shared so many experiences as Huskies,” she said. “From the moment we set foot on campus as first-year students, Northeastern has been by our side, empowering us to do more—be more—than we thought possible. Through student organizations, athletics, our cultural centers, global experience, co-op, research.”

Mankaryous asked graduates to give back. Seniors who made a gift of $20.23 to the university wore gold medals on Sunday symbolizing their commitment. The medals were inscribed with the university’s motto: light, truth, courage. 

“May you stay true to those values and in your support for Northeastern and each other,” Mankaryous said. “As Huskies, we are unstoppable. I can’t wait to see how we change the world.”

Dave Nordman is executive editor of Northeastern Global News. Follow him on Twitter @davenordman.