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At Northeastern’s Oakland
commencement, student speaker urges graduates to stay in touch with ‘anyone who means the world to you’

Graduates celebrate at Northeastern’s Oakland commencement while confetti falls around them.
Photo by Greer Rivera for Northeastern University

Known for her leadership and strong sense of community engagement, graduating senior Samantha Onate demonstrated both skills Saturday as she addressed the crowd during the commencement ceremony for graduates of Mills College at Northeastern University in Oakland, California.

“I am very nervous. If we could all take a deep breath together, that would be so amazing,” said Onate, who started as a Mills student and transitioned to Bouvé College of Health Sciences — Mills and Northeastern merged in 2022 — where she earned a bachelor’s degree.

One communal deep breath later, Onate launched into a speech about the difference the last four years have made in her life and the lives of her 50 fellow graduates.

“Many of us embarked on our journeys amidst a global pandemic, which profoundly affected our education, families and communities,” she said during the ceremony on Holmgren Meadow. 

“The pandemic introduced unprecedented obstacles to our college experience, yet through resilience and perseverance, we prevailed,” Onate said, adding “That’s a clapping moment.”

“It’s clear that no matter what we faced, we faced as a community and with the support of friends, faculty and staff,” she said. 

“I extend heartfelt appreciation to all those who supported us along the way — the mentors who offered guidance, the friends who provided compassion and the educators who challenged and inspired us,” said Onate, who was captain of the club tennis team on campus.

“Your unwavering support was instrumental to our success,” she said.

Onate was also a program assistant supervisor with campus sports and recreation, served as a global ambassador and worked as an intern at the Oakland Clinic de la Raza.

“I have seen myself participate in activities that I would’ve never done in high school and that just shows how much my time here has changed me,” Onate said.

She dedicated part of her speech to her parents Silvestre Onate and Rosa Mendoza, who she said emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in pursuit of a better life for their children.

“I am eternally grateful for their selflessness and the values they instilled in me,” Onate said before delivering the words in Spanish for her mother.

“Don’t cry,” she smilingly told her mother, as she wiped away her own tears.

“I called my parents three times a week just to talk to them and see how they’re doing,” Onate said. “Call your parents. Call your support system. Call anyone who means the world to you.”

The commencement speaker was Miriam Warren, chief diversity officer at Yelp and a 2002 graduate of Mills College, which merged with Northeastern in 2022. She talked about how growing up as the only person of color in her family inspired her with a deep desire to create inclusive communities.

“Throughout my life, the quest for community and belonging has been a constant theme,” said Warren, who was born in Germany of a Filipino father and German mother and raised in the U.S. by her mother and white American adoptive father.

“As a slightly weird little kid in Las Vegas, that search manifested as writing late night poetry celebrating diversity, though I called it ‘one big happy family’ back then,” Warren said.

Caps and gowns at Northeastern's commencement with lots of graduates waving flags as well

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She went on to give a middle school speech against racism and founded her high school’s multicultural student union and its debate team before majoring in ethnic studies in college and fostering employee resource groups at Yelp.

“Two truths about cultivating community have become evident,” Warren said, “the importance of leveraging one’s privilege for the benefit of others and the profound impact of simply showing up.”

Warren said three years ago her closest friend experienced a devastating loss.

“In the days and weeks that followed,” she said. “I learned that when the worst thing imaginable happens, there are no words to fix them. And as a result, we are often silent.”

“What I also learned and continue to feel deep in my bones is that we must show up. Sure – to events we’ve RSVP’d for, but much more important in situations that make us uncomfortable, where we aren’t sure what to say or do.”

“As you step into the future, I urge you to seize every opportunity to use your privilege on behalf of others and to show up for those who matter to you,” Warren said.

“Attend the celebrations, be there during the trials, and stand beside those in need of support. The time, energy and resources you invest in being there for others will enrich your life immeasurably,” she said.

The commencement ceremony concluded with graduates waving wands that released colorful strips of “Flutter Fetti” and a mariachi band leading them to a celebratory reception.

The graduates — 48 undergraduates and three graduate students — included 28 students who achieved the academic distinction of cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude, said Beth Kochly, interim dean of Northeastern’s Oakland campus.

“May you create your next chapter knowing we cheer you on,” Kochly said. “Let’s go forth with joy!”