Good morning, everyone!
Let me say something important right at the start: Class of 2021: You did it! Congratulations!
It’s wonderful to see all of you here in person.
And I know that some of you are joining us virtually. Rest assured that you are here with us too. We feel your presence on this momentous day.
In fact, we have some members of the Northeastern family joining us from across the globe. A special welcome to graduates and families—from India, Venezuela, Nigeria, and many more!
[Pause 6 seconds for global moment]
I also want to offer special thanks to a small and mighty group of our Golden Graduates—alumni who graduated more than 50 years ago. I know that you’re all vaccinated and ready to celebrate.
Golden Graduates, we salute you. Please give them a round of applause.
This ceremony is a metaphor for the past year at Northeastern.
Yes, there are restrictions and limitations. Many beyond our control.
But we found a way. That’s the Northeastern spirit.
We traverse boundaries. We overcome obstacles. We believe that every problem has a solution.
I want to thank the entire Northeastern community—especially our new graduates, you—for making this past year successful.
Graduates, please rise and thank your parents, friends, spouses, and partners. Without them you would not be here today. And a special thank you to all mothers, on this Mother’s Day weekend.
Please give them a round of applause.
Graduates, please thank the Northeastern faculty and staff who supported you on every step of your journey.
And please, thank yourselves for persevering. For living through a strange and uncertain time. And for staying true to your dreams.
One phase of your education comes to a close today. The rest of your education is just beginning.
We all are lifelong learners.
Many of us have been here at Fenway Park before. This is only the second time I’ve actually been on the field.
About 10 years ago, I was asked to throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game.
To be honest, I was nervous. I had practiced for a full week. But when I got out here, under all those lights, the pressure was on.
I hoped for the best. My pitch made it over the plate. I was in no danger of getting a major league contract.
Then something magical happened. After my mediocre pitch landed in the catcher’s mitt, there was a huge roar of applause from the stands. I realized, in that moment, the power of Husky pride.
Let me be clear: The cheers were not for me. They were for Northeastern, and all that our university stands for.
So, no matter where you go—from Boston to Buenos Aires to Bangkok—the Northeastern family will emerge to cheer you on.
Sometimes when you least expect it.
Set Up Lessons Learned
At most commencement ceremonies, the job of the president is to make bold pronouncements.
To use lofty language that inspires.
To speak in grandiose terms about the future.
But this is not most commencements. And this is no ordinary time.
So instead of offering a series of clichés about hopes, dreams, and possibilities, I would like to share a few simple stories.
Stories that encapsulate, for me, the enduring lessons of the past year.
Lessons that I will never forget.
All That Jazz
Here’s a vivid memory that I haven’t shared before.
It was October, the weather was getting cold, and the pandemic was worsening. We were at the leading edge of last year’s deadly winter surge.
It was a Wednesday and I was in my office. Alone. In fact, the whole building was largely devoid of people. A sense of emptiness was apparent.
But then I heard music. A saxophone, keyboards, bass guitar, and drums. And it was fantastic.
I assumed someone down the hall had Spotify cranked up. But no one was around.
Then I realized the sounds were coming from outside the building.
I was determined to get to the bottom of this musical mystery. So I ventured outside and began searching around the building.
I followed the sounds until they led me into an alley behind Columbus Avenue.
Sure enough, I discovered a live jazz quartet jamming in a little courtyard beside a picket fence. I’ve listened to a lot of jazz in my life and these musicians were captivating.
And then, just when I thought this magical moment couldn’t get any better, I noticed that the drummer was wearing a Northeastern sweatshirt.
Go Huskies! I said under my breath.
I later found out that the drummer’s name is Zeke Martin, and he teaches in our music department.
That semester, Zeke had found a way to teach his students on drum sets spaced 12 feet apart in Ryder Hall. But he couldn’t play in jazz clubs or other live venues.
So Zeke and his bandmates began playing that day for a simple reason: This was their passion.
And a deadly pandemic wasn’t going to stifle their passion or silence their instruments.
They didn’t realize anyone was listening. I looked up and saw people opening their windows in amazement. An NUPD officer standing nearby gave a thumbs up.
What Zeke and his bandmates showed us that day is something I hope we can all remember.
The times of greatest challenge demand that we add an extra measure of purpose to our passion.
That is when you make your music possible.
And in doing so, you will surely bring joy to others along the way.
Passing the Test: Together
A college education has always involved passing tests. But your class has to be the most tested in history.
Of course, I’m talking about Covid tests.
Raise your hand if you took more than 50 tests this year. More than 70?
I’m going to confess something: I loved getting tested at Cabot.
Frankly, I didn’t think I would. But that space with its quirky music, beautiful banners, and terrific staff was truly special.
I saw many of you there every week. Armed with your swabs and, more importantly, your desire to keep our campus safe.
To protect the pack.
Two weeks ago, we surpassed 1 million Covid tests on campus. Those 1 million tests may seem like mundane acts. But they represent something much more profound.
Every time you got tested, you were engaged in both an individual act and a collective promise.
This promise often involved sacrifices. Limiting your social circles. Pausing some of your favorite activities. Forgoing visits from family and friends.
Managing Covid on campus presented a new social compact. You agreed to take certain steps. In exchange, you paved the way for a successful, uninterrupted, school year.
Throughout all these challenges, you had one guiding star: Your desire to be together.
The lesson is clear: None of us can live our lives in isolation.
We all crave the power of human connection.
We all are part of the same human family.
What we do individually—good or bad—affects our shared journey.
Building and nourishing a community requires millions of individual acts that culminate in collective power.
This power goes far beyond reopening Northeastern. Exercise it well, and you can open the world for all humankind.
Revolutions Don’t Wait
One of the most consequential events of the past year took place many miles from here. At Northeastern, opportunities to learn and engage can come from anywhere.
On May 25th, the tragic murder of George Floyd ignited something powerful—in the US and around the world.
While walking along the Boston Common a few days later, I experienced firsthand the nonviolent protest that dominated the city that night.
I was struck by the sea of faces—of every color and background—who seized the urgency of that moment.
For a second, I actually forgot we were in the midst of a global pandemic.
Covid seemed distant in the face of this fierce new urgency. The fight for social justice and racial equality could not wait.
And that’s an important lesson for us all.
Historical moments will happen.
And when they arrive, we don’t get to wait for other crises to settle down.
We need to take responsibility, in the moment, for making the world better.
In the coming months and years, many of you will take the lead in eradicating systemic racism.
And you will be the champions of other causes as well: Climate change, economic inequality, food insecurity.
You will create algorithms that reduce implicit bias. You will bring more diverse voices into fields such as medicine and engineering.
And yes, your generation will help us prevent the next global pandemic.
Your job—as graduates, as leaders—is to seize these moments when they happen.
It doesn’t matter what else is already unfolding. When history knocks on your door, answering will be your generation’s highest calling.
Your opportunity to bend the world and forge a more just society.
The heart and soul of a Northeastern education is experience. It’s fair to say that your class has had an experience that you could never imagine.
It hasn’t been easy. You had to adjust to changes in your classes, your research, your co-ops, your social lives. You had to change plans and cancel trips.
But there have been moments of grace, moments of joy, moments of connection.
Moments that came out of nowhere, like the sound of jazz music rising through the air on a cold, gray day.
A beautiful reminder that we all have the capacity to persevere, and we all have the talent to create.
When this crisis fades, and it will, I hope these are some of the memories you carry with you forever.
I often say that your Northeastern education prepares you to face the unknown.
Your class, perhaps more than any other, is prepared for whatever comes next.
For any possible unknown.
I wish you the best of luck. Your resilience, and your infinite spirit, will guide our world to new heights.
We are truly in your hands.
Graduates, I salute you.
Class of 2021.
This is your time. Your moment. Your opportunity.
Your charge is to take your Northeastern experience and apply it to your passions. Wherever your passions lie.
In science and discovery. Caregiving and healing. Uncovering the truth. Creating art that inspires.
And I urge you not to pursue these passions alone.
What we have learned this year especially is how the Northeastern community supports and uplifts us all.
Remember that you will always be part of this community. Wherever your journey takes you, Northeastern is your lifelong home.
Go forth. Create. Innovate. Make change.
And always keep the music of Northeastern in your hearts.
Graduates, I salute you.
Now, when it comes to making music, I could spend all day trying to describe what that jazz band, in that backyard, sounded like. But, like everything else, it is better if you experience it yourself.
So here they are, Zeke Martin and the Oracle!
[Jazz band begins playing]