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President Aoun to graduates: ‘Go against the grain’

Student speaker Christie Civetta SSH'15 giving her Commencement address.

Hundreds of CSSH undergraduates and graduate students received their degrees at Commencement exercises on Friday.

David Muir, an award-​​winning jour­nalist and anchor for ABC’s flag­ship evening news pro­gram, con­cluded his Com­mence­ment address to North­eastern Uni­ver­sity grad­u­ates on Friday with a pow­erful state­ment. He pointed his smart­phone toward the crowd and started a Periscope broad­cast. “You’re on live. Tell the world you’re coming,” Muir told grad­u­ates, who roared with excitement.

The thrilling moment was among many at Northeastern’s 113th Com­mence­ment exer­cises, which were held at TD Garden in Boston and served as a cel­e­bra­tion of the 2015 grad­u­ating class’ great journey and out­standing accom­plish­ments. As part of the pomp and cir­cum­stance, the uni­ver­sity awarded hon­orary degrees to a dis­tin­guished group of influ­en­tial leaders, public fig­ures, and scholars: Muir, anchor of ABC World News Tonight with David Muir; Lawrence S. Bacow, pres­i­dent emer­itus of Tufts Uni­ver­sity; Vanessa Brad­ford Kerry, co-​​founder and CEO of Seed Global Health; and Gabriel Jaramillo, former chairman, pres­i­dent, and CEO at San­tander Hold­ings USA.

In his remarks, North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun urged the grad­u­ates to “go against the grain” to follow their pas­sions, take risks, and learn from their global expe­ri­ences. He shared how this advice has impacted his own journey. While his friends growing up were studying to be doc­tors, engi­neers, lawyers, and busi­ness leaders, Aoun was pur­suing his pas­sion and studying lin­guis­tics. That journey took him from his native country to Europe and then to America—and he never looked back.

I went against the grain, and I never regretted it,” Aoun said.

Grad­u­ates, some­times you will find that the estab­lished wisdom is unwise for you. Some­times you will find that choosing the road less trav­eled makes all the dif­fer­ence. In these moments, go against the grain.”

Aoun high­lighted the achieve­ments of sev­eral grad­u­ates who have already done just that. Molly Runkle was driven to help vic­tims of abuse and vio­lence in the U.S., delving into the issue’s deepest depths on co-​​op with Bumi Sehat, a renowned women’s health clinic in Indonesia.

When Shiv­angi Shah heard about a national imper­a­tive to recruit more women into the sci­ence, math, and engi­neering fields, she co-​​founded Genius Box, which delivers sci­ence kits to kids’ homes.

And when the bombs went off at the 2013 Boston Marathon, Shores Salter, S’15, sprinted toward the chaos rather than run­ning from it. He took off his belt and used it as a tourni­quet to save a woman’s life.

Aoun closed his address by noting that in today’s world of instant com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the Internet, the lure of the herd men­tality is growing stronger. But rather than fol­lowing others by clicking “like” on a pop­ular social media post, he urged grad­u­ates to resist the pull of “groupthink.”

The actions that spring from our deepest impulses to laugh, cry, love, and help are so much more pow­erful than clicks,” he said. “No matter how big the crowd, you can always choose to go against the grain. In doing so, seek to trans­form your­selves and trans­form the world.”

Embracing fear was another pow­erful theme throughout the morning cer­e­mony. Muir opened his Com­mence­ment address by urging grad­u­ates to welcome—not ignore—the fear of what fol­lows grad­u­a­tion. He shared sto­ries from his life in which he has faced and embraced his own fears, moments that included his first day of kinder­garten and his salad days as a TV news reporter. He was 21, he recalled, working the phones in the news­room, when a vet­eran reporter piped up and told him to get out of the office to find the story.

It was sage advice,” Muir said, “and I’ve been out there ever since.”

Muir noted that sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant moments in his pro­fes­sional career have come while living in Boston. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was working for the ABCaffil­iate WCVB-​​TV when he received a phone call informing him that the first hijacked plane had struck the World Trade Center towers. It was also in Boston when Muir received another call—an offer to work at ABC News in New York.

He described his expe­ri­ences of being dis­patched to cover dis­as­ters and hot spots all across the globe, where he’s cov­ered many high-​​profile sto­ries throughout his dis­tin­guished career. These include reporting from the Super­dome as Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina hit New Orleans; Fukushima, Japan, after the tsunami and nuclear inci­dent; and Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution.

While reporting from Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, Muir vividly recalled a female demon­strator who was sur­rounded by people shouting at her. She had been urging other young people to fight for their freedom and using social media as her voice.

Years later, when I hear people talk about how trivial a tweet can be or how fleeting a post on social media can be, I think to that young woman who did not take it for granted,” Muir said. “She knew the power of every word. And she was using it—to fight through her fear.”

Muir told the grad­u­ates that they too have a voice—as well as a respon­si­bility to use it for those who are unable to use theirs.

Christie Civetta, SSH’15, who received her bachelor’s degree in human ser­vices, deliv­ered the stu­dent Com­mence­ment address. She too delved into the theme of over­coming fear. She recalled trav­eling 7,803 miles out of her com­fort zone to Cape Town, South Africa, for her first co-​​op, in which she worked with a family preser­va­tion orga­ni­za­tion to help with coun­seling and drug abuse prevention.

Civetta expe­ri­enced remark­able per­sonal growth over her six-​​month expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity, and since then has sought many other oppor­tu­ni­ties to engage with the North­eastern and Greater Boston com­mu­ni­ties. These include being a member of the North­eastern Pow­er­lifting club team and run­ning a marathon on the Great Wall of China to raise money for vic­tims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

These expe­ri­ences are a part of my own unique North­eastern story, just as each of you has a nar­ra­tive that is equally as mean­ingful and equally as per­sonal to who you’ve become,” Civetta said. “I believe the core of a North­eastern edu­ca­tion lies in pushing all of us to chal­lenge our­selves through risk and expe­ri­ence, ulti­mately pro­viding each stu­dent with their unique story—and for this, I am eter­nally grateful.”

She urged her fellow grad­u­ates to “keep moving for­ward, keep pushing your­self, and keep taking chances.”

After stu­dents received their diplomas, Aoun issued his charge to grad­u­ates. He noted that this year’s hon­orary degree recip­i­ents are impres­sive role models who embody the value of global, entre­pre­neurial expe­ri­ence and who prove the value of going against the grain.

Now it is your turn,” Aoun said. “Go against the grain. Think for your­selves. Don’t mis­take pop­u­larity for truth or beauty. Take risks in pur­suit of your pas­sion. Explore the world. Be entre­pre­neurial and define your own path to suc­cess. Help others.

North­eastern has shaped you, and it will always be your home. Now it is up to you to shape the world. We are in your hands.”

Many moments throughout the under­grad­uate Com­mence­ment cer­e­mony led to spon­ta­neous out­bursts of cheering and applause. Stu­dents roared when a video played at the begin­ning of the cer­e­mony showed frigid imagery of Boston’s his­toric spate of winter snow­storms, and grad­u­ates later stood and waved to their fam­i­lies and friends, thanking them for their help in reaching this milestone.

Other mem­o­rable moments included per­for­mances by Samantha Creighton, S’15, who sang the national anthem, and the Nor’easters, Northeastern’s award-​​winning a cap­pella group.

During the cer­e­mony, Aoun acknowl­edged the suc­cess and lead­er­ship of Stephen W. Director, who is com­pleting his sev­enth and final year as provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs. Aoun also rec­og­nized the Golden Grad­u­ates in attendance—alumni rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Class of 1965.

Criminal Justice and Justice Policy Ph.D candidate Carlos Monteiro hugs his mother, Luisa, following the Doctor of Philosophy Hooding Ceremony in the Cabot Gymnasium. Prior to receiving their degrees, doctoral candidates are given their doctoral hoods.

Criminal Justice and Justice Policy Ph.D candidate Carlos Monteiro hugs his mother, Luisa, following the Doctor of Philosophy Hooding Ceremony in the Cabot Gymnasium. Prior to receiving their degrees, doctoral candidates are given their doctoral hoods.

Later in the day, some 3,000 stu­dents received advanced degrees at a cer­e­mony in Matthews Arena.

In his remarks, grad­uate cer­e­mony Com­mence­ment speaker G. Wayne Clough chal­lenged the grad­u­ates to mar­shal their sagacity and intel­lec­tual acumen to tackle today’s biggest prob­lems. Clough—who received an hon­orary doc­torate of engi­neering and humane letters—pointed in par­tic­ular to the scourge of cli­mate change, global pan­demics, and the edu­ca­tion gap between the nation’s haves and have-​​nots, all of which he described as unprece­dented chal­lenges involving the fate of both our species and our planet.

I am an opti­mist and believe those of you leaving this campus today are ready to take on the issues your world faces no matter how large,” said Clough, the sec­re­tary emer­itus of the Smith­sonian Insti­tu­tion and pres­i­dent emer­itus of the Georgia Insti­tute of Tech­nology. “In your future roles as teachers, scholars, entre­pre­neurs, engi­neers, politi­cians, and pres­i­dents, I know you will use your first-​​rate intel­li­gence and wisdom to take on what may seem hope­less, implau­sible, or impos­sible and make them oth­er­wise. Make your chil­dren and grand­chil­dren proud, as proud as we are of you today.”

Aoun’s charge to the advanced degree recip­i­ents echoed his direc­tive to the under­grad­u­ates who received their diplomas ear­lier in the day.

Those who go against the grain some­times change the world,” Aoun said. “You are in a rare posi­tion to do this. You have mas­tered your dis­ci­plines. Use this learning not merely to accept the received wisdom. Use it to create new wisdom for our times.”

-By Greg St. Martin. Staff writer and editor Jason Korn­witz con­tributed to this story.

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