Commencement Address: The Freedom to Shape Your Own Future

President Joseph E. Aoun
Northeastern University
August 28, 2008

Graduates, you heard two magnificent speakers—absolutely magnificent. They didn’t come to you with recipes; they came to you with pearls. They didn’t tell you what you should do; they talked about themselves, and about what they do.

You can think about those pearls as a necklace. You are going to form your own necklace, and this necklace will get longer and longer with your own experience. One day you may want to share with your friends, family, and colleagues the pearls that have been passed on to you today, as well as the ones you will uncover yourselves.

This is a great day. You’re going to start a career. You’re going to continue your education. You’re going to accomplish many things. Some of you know what those things will be, and some of you still may be wondering what the next steps are going to be.

I have to tell you something that’s going to be a little bit shocking to you and to your friends and families: the day you leave a university—any university—the knowledge you have acquired becomes obsolete. So you’re leaving here with obsolete knowledge.

What then is the value of your diploma? What is the value of your education?

The value of your education is that you now know how to negotiate the unknown. That’s exactly what we hope we’ve accomplished with you—that together we have shaped your ability to face our ever-changing environment, and that, in turn, you will be able to shape it.

This is easier said than done. Not long ago, people used to transmit the same knowledge from generation to generation. This can no longer be the case. The world is moving too fast. It can be scary. You think that you’re on top of the world, and suddenly things change. What you heard today from our two keynote speakers is that your inner leadership abilities—formed by your education—are going to allow you to face the unknown and to shape it into something new and worthwhile.

I’d like to share with you a few thoughts about a related topic: the notion of happiness. Some economists nowadays are saying that happiness is relative. If you have a lot, but your neighbor has even more, then you are less happy than the neighbor. I believe that this notion of happiness doesn’t capture the power we each have to create our own happiness. And that is because it doesn’t allow for the fact that this society encourages individuals to chart their own course.

As I travel around the world, I am struck by the fact that higher education systems in many countries practice academic profiling. Students with the highest scores go on to pursue engineering. Then those with the next best scores are tracked towards medicine. Then business. Then the liberal arts.

I think this notion of academic profiling is very limiting. What we do in this nation, and in particular here at Northeastern, is the exact opposite of this practice. From day one, we tell you to pursue your passion and your interests, and to shape the world through that passion and those interests. That is how you emerge as a true leader. This freedom to follow your heart is precious, and frankly, very few nations offer it. You, however, got to choose what you want to do, and you now have the power to carve your own path and to shape the world.

With this freedom to pursue your passion comes responsibility—the obligation to give back. Our two keynote speakers very humbly didn’t mention this point, as it’s such an integral part of their lives—a dimension they live on a daily basis. Both of the Zanes are involved in many philanthropic causes. The have always found a time and a way to give back—in spite of 16-hour workdays. This is not easy to do, but it is something that is very special and important.

These notions of happiness and philanthropy are what characterize you as you leave this University—and they will serve as a model for the rest of the world. It’s not going to be easy, starting a new career or pursuing a new diploma. But before you head off, please do me this favor: close your eyes for two seconds and capture this moment. It will always be with you. Now, open your eyes. Look to the faculty, the staff, and your friends who are graduating with you. Know that you will always have a home here. Northeastern is your home, and we are family.

Graduates, congratulations.