President’s Convocation: Learning to Negotiate the Unknown

President Joseph Aoun
Northeastern University
September 8, 2008

Good morning. Now, I have a problem. Rob said my speech, so I have to improvise. 

First, let me welcome one of the newest members of our faculty on this stage, Steve Director, our provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. Please join me in welcoming Steve to his new academic community. Steve, welcome to Northeastern. 

I would also like to acknowledge my colleagues, the faculty, many of whom are here today. They are going to be with you for at least four years. Please take advantage of their exceptional minds, their wonderful humor, and their deep dedication to the craft of teaching. I ask these colleagues, the faculty, to please rise and be recognized. 

Thank you. Let me begin by asking, do you know how many students applied here this fall? Thirty-six thousand. And for how many spots? About 2,800. So you are part of a very select group granted access to this great institution.

The question is, what is it that you get here that you don’t get elsewhere? In fact, what we offer here is very different from what most universities offer. Here we don’t believe that learning confined to a campus is sufficient. We actually believe that the campus is far too confining.

That belief has led us to become the world leader in experiential education. We believe that the best way to learn is to integrate study and practice. And by that we don’t mean for you to simply study a subject here in the classroom and then go practice what you learn for a few months on the job. We believe that experiential education is something more. We’re telling you that in order for deep learning to occur, you need to combine both—not simply experience both.

What does that mean? It means that you need to challenge what you study in the classroom out in the real world, and at the same time you need to challenge and augment what you experience in the real world with what you learn in your classes. These are not two separate learning arenas; they overlap.

What does it mean to challenge reality? It means that you cannot take anything that you learn for granted. You cannot assume that you hear in the classroom is the final word. You must also recognize the relevance of your academic insights within the work place. Both in the classroom and on the job, you have the opportunity to shape reality—to shape it and reshape it. That’s the beauty of experiential learning.

Experiential learning not only enhances your education, it allows you to test drive careers and fields you may never have considered. Some of you know, or think you know, what you want to study and what you want to do when you graduate. I would now like to ask all the undecided students to please rise. Look at them. Do you think they are without a home? [laughter] That is not at all the case. Each and every one of these students has a home in every college, school, and department in this University.

In fact, students who are undecided represent the norm. On average, students nationwide change their majors three times. So we expect you to change your majors. In fact, we encourage it. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re exploring. Perhaps this exploration will help you affirm your original field of study or career choice. Perhaps you will wind up doing a 180-degree turn from your original choice. Either path can lead to great success.

For you see, our goal is not to get you ready for a career. Our goal is to get you ready for life.

Some of you might be thinking, “How are you going to get me ready for life? I don’t even know what I’m going to have for breakfast tomorrow morning.” If so, you have pinpointed exactly what we are trying to do: Prepare you to negotiate the unknown, rather than tell you how to master the finite.

We’re doing this in a very simple way: By providing you with all that you need to know in a comprehensive core curriculum, while offering you the opportunity to explore the widest possible array of interests in your elective program—even if those interests differ dramatically from your core program. So if you’re interested in biology, you might consider exploring economics. If you’re interested in chemistry or engineering, you may also choose to pursue international languages.

Why are we doing this? It’s more work for you, and it’s more work for us. We’re doing it to get you ready for a life in which you will likely embark on a first, second, third, even fourth career. The difference between each of those careers may simply be the ability to face the world and complex problems from a different perspective. In today’s world, you cannot know the types of challenges you may face; therefore, you must feel as confident in your ability to negotiate those unknown challenges as you do in taking on the ones right in front of you. By exploring majors and minors in very different fields, you open yourself up to different perspectives and enhance that level of confidence.

This is going to position you in a highly competitive way with respect to the thousands of students who are applying for jobs and who are applying to top professional and graduate schools.

So, please remember not to focus on your major only. This University has more than 170 disciplines, many of which you may not ever have heard of. Be open to the options and the possibilities. Remember, you are here to explore, and you are here to discover.

Preparing yourselves to navigate the landscape of multiple careers is only part of the task ahead of you. Let me say something that may seem shocking as you sit here today, hungry to fill your minds with new knowledge and ideas: The knowledge and ideas that you learn here, or at any other university, are soon going to be obsolete. The world is changing that fast. Knowledge is being created and displaced with that much constancy. In this global society, you will have to have more than a skill set or a mind filled with facts. You will need to know how to think about reality, how to shape it, and how to adapt.

You will also need to know how to do this in a diverse world. Experts on globalization talk about the world having become flat, that competition in a worldwide marketplace has erased international and cultural divides. That may be true to a degree in commerce, but the differences between nations and within them are still substantial. In fact, you’ll be leading in a world where diversity has never been more a part of how we interact and solve problems.

Now is your opportunity to explore this diverse world, to learn the nuances between nations and cultures. We offer you ways to do so that are unmatched by any other university. We offer experiential education in 88 cities outside the United States—including co-op, study abroad, service, and research. These are opportunities to explore the world in a deep and meaningful way. They’re not opportunities for academic tourism.

Have you heard this term “academic tourism?” We don’t do it here. We don’t allow you to travel the world for fun only. We ask you to engage with the world, to partner with new people and ideas, to understand nations and cultures more fully.

We recognize, too, that international experience begins in Boston, and we encourage you to seek ways to broaden your global perspective right here on our campus. Know that in today’s world you will need to have a firmer grasp on languages. We offer 15 international language courses. (Yes, we call them “international languages,” not “foreign languages,” because in our increasingly global society nothing is foreign.) Make these classes a priority.

You also have the opportunity to engage with the many international students who are members of this community. Our international student body is a tremendous asset to our academic community. These students are a great resource for you, and you are a great resource for them.

Northeastern’s international presence is growing everyday. I was recently in Singapore and I saw a young woman walking down the street wearing a Northeastern T-shirt, which gave me the opportunity to strike up a conversation. It turns out she was doing a co-op there. So whether you are on Newbury Street, or in Singapore, or in Mali, or anyplace in the world, you will find people will come say, yes, I went to Northeastern, too. And, yes, we want you to be part of us. You are now part of this international community.

In conclusion I’d like to say that if somebody had told me 35 years ago—before you were born—that one day I would be president of a university, I would have laughed. I had no idea when I started studying that I would end up being president of this great University. This is not to tell you that you have no idea what you will be doing 10, 20, or 35 years from now. But whether or not you do, I can promise you one thing: Wherever you go, whatever you do, our alumni will always be with you, and Northeastern will always be here to welcome you home.

Thank you very much. Enjoy this day and the exciting time ahead.