‘This is just the beginning.’ Student poet takes mic during Northeastern commencement

Chinma Nnadozie-Okananwa reciting her poem into a mic at commencement
Chinma Nnadozie-Okananwa, graduated with a graduate degree in English, performed an original poem during Northeastern’s commencement, reflecting on the past while anticipating the future. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

This is part of our coverage of Northeastern’s 2023 commencement exercises. For more information, visit our dedicated commencement page.

An early May sun shone down on Chinma Nnadozie-Okananwa, as she grabbed the mic and uttered two words to a packed crowd in Fenway Park on Sunday: Remember this.

Nnadozie-Okananwa, who graduated during Northeastern University’s commencement on Sunday with a graduate degree in English, has been writing and performing poems for more than a decade. She knows the power of the written word when it’s spoken out loud, the way it flows from her mouth, twists in the air and takes root in the mind of an audience. 

With an original poem, Nnadozie-Okananwa, the first member of her family to receive a graduate degree, used commencement as a chance to reflect on the Class of 2023’s Northeastern experience while offering encouragement and comfort as the graduates head into a promising yet uncertain future: 

“But college is meant for growing pains
You have stretched your bones for so long
Now is the time to leap
Take every tear and water dreams into fruition
Take every laugh and play it on speakerphone until the world has heard your voice”

“I feel like a lot of times we don’t talk as much about what happens after we graduate,” Nnadozie-Okananwa says. “A lot of times graduation can spur a lot of different, sometimes complicated emotions. What I wanted to do was reassure, encourage, also reminisce a little bit, think about the good times we had at Northeastern while also looking forward.”

As a member of the Interrobang Poets, Northeastern’s slam poetry club, poetry has been an integral part of Nnadozie-Okananwa’s experience at Northeastern. But her relationship with poetry goes back even further, to her days in her high school poetry club, where she first started doing slam poetry.

“I wasn’t the most coherent kid––I had a stutter for a long time,” Nnadozie-Okananwa says. “I think that’s why I always turned to writing. I was always writing short stories, fictional stories about other people, so when I discovered poetry, it was the first time I was actually writing about myself. That just felt really transformative.”

Inspired by poets like Porsha Olayiwola, the poet laureate of Boston, and Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali-British poet, Nnadozie-Okananwa has found her passion at the crossroads of poetry and social advocacy. She admires the way poetry can “speak truth to power,” amplifying and elevating marginalized voices.

“Poetry’s presence in social advocacy is a long-stand one,” Nnadozie-Okananwa says, and the intermingling of those two interests is particularly common in the slam poetry world. Her experience with the Interrobang Poets fueled her passion for the power of the written word and gave her a community to “not just hear but listen” to her words and the voice behind them.

“The community has curated a space that is just so full of affirmation, so full of validating and acknowledging and spotlighting a lot of peoples’ experiences to offset the fact that some people get up and share really vulnerable things,” Nnadozie-Okananwa says. “That’s a really big part of poetry. You don’t just perform; somebody has to be there to listen.”

Performing her poem for both the undergraduate and graduate ceremonies, there was no shortage of people to listen to Nnadozie-Okananwa on Sunday. The enormity of the situation brought with it anxiety and excitement in equal measure for Nnadozie-Okananwa, not unlike commencement as a whole.

For the Class of 2023, it was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Excitement and anxiety are part of the experience––and Nnadozie-Okananwa wanted to make that experience worth savoring for her fellow graduates:

“This is just the beginning
You are on the precipice of the rest of your lives
Watch it flash
Watch it flicker
To your families; the ones you started with and the ones you did not see coming
You all have kindled the most precious of flames”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.mello-klein@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.