2012 Commencement Remarks

Experiential Learning Is a Way of Life

As president of Northeastern University, it is my honor and privilege to welcome you to the 110th commencement exercises.

Graduates: We salute your accomplishments. We share in your joy. This is a day to celebrate all that you have achieved, and to imagine all that lies ahead.

Parents, families, friends, spouses, and partners: This day marks the fulfillment of long-held dreams and aspirations. Graduates, join me in thanking them for the sacrifices they have made and the support they have provided to make this moment possible.

Trustees, faculty colleagues, and staff: Now is a moment to celebrate and rejoice in the fruits of our work.

Honorary-degree recipients: You honor us with your presence. Each one of you has charted your own path, honed your unique talents. Your extraordinary contributions enrich and inspire us all. We are pleased to welcome you to the Northeastern family.

I have been told that college graduates rarely remember what the president of their university said at commencement. I know many of you are shocked by this statement—and I am, too. In an effort to counter this trend, I’m going to keep my remarks concise—and hopefully memorable.

I will share with you three principles that I have tried to live by on a daily basis.

First, surround yourself with people who are ahead of you—people who challenge you and force you to think deeply.

As president of Northeastern, I cannot have all of the answers—nor should I have them. On a daily basis, my eyes are opened and my thinking sharpened by my colleagues. They may be seated behind me on this stage, but they are ahead of me in their thinking.

I should add that many of you students have taught me to understand and to see the world in a new way.

'You have helped me understand the value of virtual communities. You have even led me to become engaged with you on Twitter—and become part of the global connectivity that your generation has embraced. You are “digital natives” and you are ahead of me in this domain.

As each of you knows firsthand, learning from others is the essence of a Northeastern education. Through co-op, you learned not just from your professors and classmates, but from people and experiences around the world.

This ability to learn and put new knowledge into practice is a tremendous advantage that will remain with you. It is much more than a valuable skill. At its best, experiential learning is a way of life.

My second guiding principle was articulated by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do something every day that scares you.”

Let me rephrase that. I suspect that not even Eleanor Roosevelt welcomed a daily scare. But do not shy away from that which scares you, especially at those junctures of your life where taking a risk could mean profound rewards.

When I completed my graduate education here in the United States, I had several jobs lined up back in France, where I had lived previously and had planned to build my life. But a funny thing happened on the way to Paris—I ended up in Los Angeles.

This was not part of the plan. In fact, it wasn’t something I had even contemplated. It was also a big risk. Had I taken a teaching job in Paris, I would have remained in my comfort zone.

But I wanted more. I wanted to work in a new, dynamic, and provocative environment—one that would give me the opportunity to do groundbreaking work. To change the shape of my field. To make a real contribution.

The bottom line is that I traded security for opportunity. Looking back today, this was clearly the right decision. But I couldn’t have known that at the time. I changed countries, continents, and cultures. I did something to scare myself and it changed the direction of my life.

So be attuned to those moments when a single decision can have a transformative impact. And in those moments, be bold. Take risks. Even if it scares you.

My third principle is the following: Community gives life and meaning to your promise.

Let me explain. Our honorary-degree recipients today are remarkably accomplished. They have achieved worldwide renown in the fields of diplomacy, education, philanthropy, and government.

But their accomplishments are vastly magnified by something larger—something that unites them all: Their lives have been shaped by service to others.

They commit their talents and their passions to causes larger than themselves. Each understands that an indi- vidual path is part of a collective journey.

Ambition takes on another dimension entirely when it fuels a cause or a mission greater than your own. Engagement and service bring personal fulfillment in addition to success—something I wish for each of you.

So these are three simple precepts that have guided me:

  • Surround yourself with people who are ahead of you.
  • Don’t be afraid to scare yourself.
  • Community gives life and meaning to your promise.

I hope that these precepts will be as useful to you as they have been to me.

Your decisions and your choices will shape your lives and careers. In a world of rapid change and at a time of enormous challenges, they will also shape our collective future. We are in your hands.

Charge to Graduates

The historian James Truslow Adams wrote: “There are two types of education. One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.”

I believe that Northeastern is that rare institution that gives you both.

When you receive your diplomas today, I hope you’ll see them not as certificates of attainment, but as passports. Today is not the finish line, but the starting gate.

Your degree is your ticket to explore the world and to question what you find. Wherever you are headed, stop and discover new places. Take risks and confront challenges. Explore new ideas and cultures not your own, just as you did here at Northeastern.

As alumni, stay true to the experiences and friendships you nurtured here. And whatever city or country or continent you call home, always think of Northeastern University as your permanent home in the world. The world will always be your classroom, and the knowledge you acquired here will always be your guiding star.