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Graduates urged to empower others, impact the world

North­eastern cel­e­brated the Class of 2014 and pre­sented honorary degrees to a group of influ­en­tial leaders and scholars on Friday morning during the under­grad­uate cer­e­mony of the university’s 112th commencement exercises. The celebra­tion was held at TD Garden in Boston before some 20,000 stu­dents, uni­ver­sity leaders, faculty, staff, family, and friends.

North­eastern pre­sented hon­orary degrees to Janet Napolitano, the former U.S. Sec­re­tary of Home­land Secu­rity who is now pres­i­dent of the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia; award-​​winning enter­tain­ment icon LL COOL J; and former NFL player Wade Davis II, who is cur­rently the exec­u­tive director of the You Can Play Project, an orga­ni­za­tion dedicated to ending discrim­i­na­tion, sexism, and homo­phobia in sports.

Sev­eral promi­nent and pow­erful themes emerged during the com­mence­ment addresses. Grad­u­ates were urged to chart their own paths, empower them­selves and others, and strive to make a dif­fer­ence in the world.

Last year North­eastern launched its his­toric $1 bil­lion Empower campaign. In his address, Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun asked grad­u­ates to reflect on those who empow­ered them at North­eastern: fac­ulty, staff, peers, men­tors, and friends. “Through them, you have become empow­ered. And in turn, you, too, have empow­ered people,” he said.

Aoun sin­gled out sev­eral grad­u­ating seniors for their accomplish­ments, which included working on health initiatives around the world, starting entre­pre­neurial ventures, and engaging in public ser­vice at the White House. He told gradu­ates that oppor­tu­ni­ties for them to empower others would only grow larger after graduation.

“Con­sider the great things left undone: the redemp­tion of our nat­ural envi­ron­ment; the res­o­lu­tion of poverty and injus­tice; the quest for greater peace in our time,” Aoun said. “So much music remains unwritten. So much art remains uncre­ated. So many mys­teries of humanity, nature, and the cosmos remain unsolved.

“One day, they will be solved—because you will solve them.”

The excite­ment was pal­pable throughout com­mence­ment. Graduates cheered and embraced, beach balls soared, and flashes from proud par­ents’ cam­eras flick­ered throughout the room. The Nor’easters—the award-​​winning stu­dent a capella group—delivered rousing performances, and at one point they were joined by LL COOL J.

Throughout the cer­e­mony, grad­u­ates, atten­dees, and others watching online expressed their exhil­a­ra­tion and congratulations on Twitter with the hashtag #NU2014, which was trending nationwide.

During the cer­e­mony, North­eastern also rec­og­nized the Golden Grad­u­ates in attendance—alumni rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Class of 1964.

The audi­ence also roared for the three hon­orary degree recip­i­ents who were hailed for their achieve­ments: Napolitano as “exem­plar of ser­vice to our nation, transforma­tive leader in edu­ca­tion, stan­dard bearer of the common good;” LL COOL J as a “trail­blazing performing artist, devoted mentor and bene­factor, cul­tural icon;” and Davis, as a “self­less cham­pion for inclu­sion, coura­geous advo­cate, true hero of sport.”

In her com­mence­ment address, Napoli­tano noted the stu­dents’ many accom­plish­ments during their time at Northeastern, including on co-op—which she called “one of the nation­ally rec­og­nized hall­marks of a Northeastern education.” After grad­u­a­tion, in what­ever endeavors grad­u­ates pursue, Napolitano said that was mat­ters most is “not about how much you make, it’s whether you make a difference.”

“You don’t go to col­lege so you can punch a clock. You go to col­lege so that you can be in a posi­tion to make a difference,” she said.

In pur­suing these endeavors, Napoli­tano offered grad­u­ates one guiding prin­ciple: “Beware the tyranny of the straight line.”

To illus­trate her point, she described sail­boats skim­ming the white­caps on Boston Harbor, noting they all share one impor­tant character­istic: they don’t glide in a straight line. Rather, they zigzag, and in doing so they go forward.

“In 2064, when you’re wearing a golden robe and you return to North­eastern for your 50th reunion, my hope for you is that you will look back on the decades that have passed and see the twists and turns—the tacking—that are the hall­mark of a well lived life.”

She said her own journey has taken a ser­pen­tine route—from working as a pri­vate attorney, to run­ning for polit­ical office and being elected gov­ernor of Ari­zona, to serving in Pres­i­dent Obama’s cab­inet and now as pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­fornia. “It’s been an exhil­a­rating ride,” she said, “and I would not have traded it for all the foresight and pre­dictability in the world.”

To grad­u­ates, she offered this piece of advice: “Stay alert to the opportunities—especially the unex­pected ones—that will move you forward.”

For her part, the stu­dent com­mence­ment speaker Emily Izzo, SSH’14, an inter­na­tional affairs and cultural anthropology combined major, deliv­ered a pas­sionate and inspiring speech to her fellow graduates.

Izzo began by thanking her par­ents for instilling in her the knowl­edge that her future was in her hands. At Northeastern, Izzo said, she and her peers have been afforded lim­it­less oppor­tu­ni­ties span­ning coun­tries, dis­ci­plines, and cul­tures to chart their own paths. She urged grad­u­ates to use the skills and knowl­edge they’ve acquired at Northeastern to achieve great things and pursue solu­tions to the world’s greatest challenges.

“Today it is our turn to step up and bring all of our extraor­di­nary tal­ents and expe­ri­ences out into the world, because what we’ve accomplished here means nothing if we do not dedi­cate our­selves to solving all the global issues we’ve studied so dili­gently, and per­haps railed against so passion­ately, for the last four or five years.”

The Class of 2014, she said, is bound for great achievements. “Having known you and the esteemed pro­fes­sors and leaders whose collective expe­ri­ence we have all benefitted from, I feel assured that every problem has a solution; that every stale­mate is even­tu­ally broken; and that, above all, people, with their myriad expe­ri­ences and quirks, new­fan­gled the­o­ries and crazy pipedreams, are those solutions.

“So listen to each other’s sto­ries. Do not fear what is foreign. And above all, push your horizon out far­ther than ever before.”

At the end of the morning cer­e­mony, the audi­ence cheered as grad­u­ates moved the tas­sels on their grad­u­a­tion caps—many of which were dec­o­rated with mes­sages and bold colors—from the right to the left side: They were offi­cially grad­u­ates of the Class of 2014.

In closing remarks, Aoun issued his charge to the newest group of North­eastern alumni: “As you con­tinue on your paths to empowerment, remember that this journey is not only about you but also it is about the impact you will make on the world. As you embark on your jour­neys, North­eastern will always be a guiding star for you. It will always be your home. Grad­u­ates, I salute you.”

Later in the day, more than 1,500 stu­dents received advanced degrees at a cer­e­mony in Matthews Arena.

Victor J. Dzau, the pres­i­dent and CEO of Duke Uni­ver­sity Health System and the incoming pres­i­dent of the Insti­tute of Med­i­cine, delivered the grad­uate cer­e­mony com­mence­ment address.

“Our speaker this after­noon is a true inno­vator in healthcare,” said Aoun of Dzau. “As a pio­neer in the field of vascular med­i­cine and genetics, he worked on impor­tant breakthroughs in gene therapy and stem cell biology.”

In his remarks, Dzau urged the grad­u­ates to follow their pas­sion in order to achieve suc­cess. “Over time, if you follow your pas­sion, adapt to changing cir­cum­stances, and leave a trail of enhance­ment in your life and work, suc­cess will find you,” Dzau explained.

Now that they are armed with cre­den­tials from North­eastern, Dzau encour­aged the grad­u­ates to be the change agents that could bring clean waters to those in the world who don’t have it, or dis­cover new approaches to delivering healthcare.

“The world is full of chal­lenges and prob­lems that need your help,” he said. “Do some­thing about these problems.”

Prior to his speech, Dzau received an hon­orary doctor of sci­ence. Donald G. Comb, founder and chairman of the board of New Eng­land Bio­labs and founder of the Ocean Genome Legacy, received an hon­orary doctor of science.

– By Greg St. Martin

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