Maine Gov. Janet Mills celebrates ‘generation of new leaders’ during Roux Institute at Northeastern commencement

graduates throwing their caps and gowns in the air
The second graduating class of the Roux Institute at Northeastern University celebrated commencement in front of Portland City Hall with Maine Gov. Janet Mills. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

PORTLAND, Maine—With the vaulted ceiling of the Merrill Auditorium above them and the ruby red curtains of the stage before them, the 125 members of the Roux Institute at Northeastern University’s second graduating class celebrated commencement in style on Friday.

Launched in Portland three years ago, the Roux Institute is focused on catalyzing economic development in Maine through the efforts of those on campus––like students and faculty––but also partnerships with more than 150 organizations throughout Maine.

Considering the Roux Institute’s significant role in shaping the future of Maine, it was apt that Janet Mills, governor of the state of Maine, was the 2023 commencement speaker.

Looking out at the class of 2023 and their friends and families, Mills reflected on the “generation of new leaders” in fields like computer and data science, biotechnology and project management that sat before. The governor urged the graduates to find a balance between trailblazing into the future through advanced technologies like AI and quantum computing and the things that make them human: compassion, courage and creativity.

“As technology continues to advance closer to what was once science fiction, the ability to recognize both the benefits and dangers and the need to make meaning out of the sea of information that floods our digital world and the challenge of applying human understanding to solve problems will be more important than ever before,” Mills said.

The 75th governor of Maine and the first woman to serve in the position, Mills’ time as a politician and lawyer has been defined by her ability to repeatedly break boundaries and move beyond the glass ceiling. She was the state’s first female criminal prosecutor and, prior to becoming governor, served twice as Maine’s attorney general, becoming the first woman to hold that position in the state’s history as well.

In 2018, Mills ran for governor and was elected, securing more votes than any governor in Maine’s history. She was reelected in 2022, breaking her own record for the most votes cast for a gubernatorial candidate.

Pointing to graduates like Lindsay Watts, Kris Barnes and Sophia Cofone, Mills saw the same trailblazing spirit amid the Roux Institute’s class of 2023. 

Watts enrolled in the Roux’s biotechnology master’s program to learn the lifesaving applications of medical technology. Using the data science skills she learned at the Roux, Watts now works as a product transfer scientist improving new medical products.

In 2020, Barnes knew he wanted to learn about computer science but not at the cost of leaving Maine. Through the Roux’s computer science program, Barnes managed to do exactly that and now uses data to improve the outdoor recreation industry.

Cofone received her master’s degree in data science and is using her skills to conduct research at an esports startup. Her work will help to determine whether it’s possible to predict outcomes in competitive gaming based on a player’s role.

“High-tech skills like these are what our students need to be ‘robot-proof’ and what our businesses are searching for when they’re hiring. By designing courses in partnership with Maine’s leading businesses, like Jackson Labs, IDEXX and L.L. Bean, the Roux Institute has created a pipeline of entrepreneurs who are at the heart of Maine’s economy and they’ve created a hub of technological excellence right here in Portland, Maine.”

Maine Governor speaking at Roux Institute graduation
Maine Gov. Janet Mills joined Northeastern University in celebrating Roux Institute graduates at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

One of those partners is the state of Maine itself. The Roux has already worked with Mills’ government to reduce carbon emissions, expand internet access in more rural areas of the state, improve public education and preserve access to one of the state’s most substantial resources, the great outdoors.

“Advanced technology is already transforming Maine’s economy, allowing our heritage industries like farming, fishing, and forestry to adapt and stay competitive on the world stage,” Mills said. “The skills you have learned at the Roux will make you leaders in these industries and others that are driving innovation in our economy. … I hope that while you push the boundaries of technology that you stay true to what binds us together as a people.”

Although Roux Institute graduates come from across the U.S. and the globe, for many graduates, this year’s commencement was as much a celebration of Maine as it was a celebration of their time at Northeastern.

Among those who graduated on Friday was Daniel Avery, one of the first students to enroll in the Roux’s biotechnology graduate degree program. Avery also received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Northeastern in 2011.

As both a long-time Mainer and student at the Roux Institute, Avery has seen firsthand how the Roux Institute is transforming Portland and Maine as a whole.

“[David and Barbara Roux] took a chance to bring this opportunity to Maine to show that we did not only need to be reliant on the typical hard-nosed jobs that are often associated with the state, but instead, the Rouxs gave the state a brighter future to move ahead into the fields of technology and all of the branches that that entails,” Avery said during his commencement address.

For Lydia Swann, who received her master’s in project management on Friday, this wasn’t the first time she had walked across the Merrill Auditorium stage for a graduation. Raised in Portland, Swann was familiar with the stage from her Portland High School graduation. In fact, commencement was defined by these kinds of “seconds” for Swann.

A double Husky, Swann had previously graduated with a bachelor’s in anthropology from Northeastern in 2012. This time around she’s also walking across the stage while pregnant with her second child, with her first child and husband cheering her on from the audience.

After leaving Maine to work in southern California, the Roux provided Swann with an opportunity to return to Portland, hone her skills in project management and build connections that have already translated into a new role as a project manager for Steamboat Road Consulting in Portland.

“Having professors who are in the community and working in Maine, have connections with different employers, I’m now a couple months into a new job with someone who was a professor of mine,” Swann says. “What better way to get to know a new boss than to be taught by them for six weeks.”

Chandra Leister, who graduated from the Roux last year, returned to welcome the class of 2023 into the Roux Institute at Northeastern University alumni community. 

“We, the alumni of the Roux Institute, have the power to shape the skyline of Maine, a skyline built not out of buildings, but out of new opportunities and innovation––for this great state, and beyond,” Leister said.

After the Roux choir performed Northeastern’s alma mater, Chris Mallett, chief administrative officer of the Roux Institute, encouraged the graduates to continue the innovative work they started in Portland.

“Each of you are part of an important economic transformation … and talent transformation that’s happening here in Maine,” Mallett said. “Our shared future is exciting and we’re counting on you to lead us.”

“Maine urgently needs your talent and your abilities,” Mallett continued. “Work on a problem that interests you, and maybe start your own company to solve it. Above all, continue to embrace change. Look for it, harness it and lead it.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.