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From left: Acting Provost Vicki Roman-Lagunas, Valerie Jarrett, Interim President Richard Helldobler

Monday, May 8, 2017

Northeastern Illinois University Commencement focuses on civic engagement

Chicago lawyer and civic leader Valerie B. Jarrett, the longest-serving senior adviser to President Barack Obama, encouraged graduates to stay civically engaged, embrace diversity and think globally during Northeastern Illinois University’s Commencement ceremony on May 8, 2017, at UIC Pavilion.

“We must ask ourselves: What should be our responsibilities to one another and one nation to other nations?” Jarrett said. “We simply can’t afford to pull back because the times are challenging or to isolate ourselves from each other or from the world.”

Northeastern awarded Jarrett an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of her achievements. During her time working for Obama, Jarrett oversaw the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls. She worked throughout her tenure at the White House to mobilize elected officials, business and community leaders, and diverse groups of advocates.

Jarrett has a background in both the public and private sectors. She served as the chief executive officer of The Habitat Company in Chicago, chairman of the Chicago Transit Board, commissioner of Planning and Development, and deputy chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. She also served as the director of numerous corporate and not-for-profit boards, including chairman of the Board of the Chicago Stock Exchange, chairman of the University of Chicago Medical Center Board of Trustees, and director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Jarrett relayed many lessons from her life of service, frequently circling back to the theme of finding “true north.”

“I loved my boss, President Obama, and his first lady. I have respected them for as long as many of you have been on this Earth,” she told the graduates. “Even on the worst days, we never lost sight of why we were there. Our true north was you.”

Jarrett referenced a number of prominent Northeastern alumni, including U.S. Congressman Luis Gutiérrez and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, and challenged graduates to follow in their footsteps.

“Ours is a big and diverse country. We are stronger when every voice speaks out,” she said. “Without reservation and despite the challenges I faced in my last eight years in Washington … without any hesitation, I encourage you to jump in the arena.”

Jarrett finished with one of her favorite quotes from President John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

Civic engagement was a recurring theme among the Commencement speakers.

Interim President Richard Helldobler encouraged the graduates to use their education to engage people with whom they have differences.

“You have learned, lived, and in some cases worked at, and are now graduating from the most diverse university in the Midwest,” he said. “Your educational and world lens is rare because of this rich experience both in and out of the classroom. Who better than you to go out into the world to promote a better understanding of both our commonalities and differences? Who better than you to support social justice, humanity and helping your neighbor?”

Student speaker Joshua Koo encouraged the graduates to never forget their dreams.

“Like romance, dreams only fail when the heart is forgotten and convenience to conformity sets in,” said Koo, who graduated with his master’s degree in Educational Leadership and his Illinois endorsement to be a school principal. “So the next time your back is up against the wall, and you feel exhausted, and you feel yourself getting sucked into the hopeless, pragmatic cycle of the world, step back and remind yourself of the romance and dreams for greater change that brought you here and pushed you to be at graduation today. Remind your heart and your soul of why you fell in love with your dream in the first place. And once you feel that renewed conviction, jump back in with both feet, boldly, all in the name of love.”

Board of Trustees Chair Carlos Azcoitia invited the graduates to reflect on their journeys and the individuals who helped lead them to success.

“No person is an island. No one is self-made entirely,” he said. “We must also recognize your families, your professors, your advisers, the administration, your peers and everyone who has made a difference in your lives.”

Also at the Commencement ceremony

  • Associate Professor of Communication, Media and Theatre Tony Adams was presented with the Bernard J. Brommel Distinguished Research Professor Award.
  • Northeastern honored Dean Emeritus Carlos Melian and Associate Professor Emerita Nanette Potee.
  • Social Work graduate Holly Houghton announced that the Class Gift scholarship fund collection for 2017 is more than $1,500.
  • The processional and recessional were performed by the University Wind Ensemble and conducted by Associate Professor of Music Travis Heath. The national anthem was performed by Brennan Roach.
  • Acting Provost Vicki Roman-Lagunas was recognized with an award for her service to Northeastern.

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