Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun delivered the commencement address at Boston College High School on Saturday, urging the graduates to embrace flexibility while exploring their futures in unexpected ways.
“I know this sounds strange coming from a university president,” Aoun said from the outdoor podium on a pleasant spring morning. “Half of what you learn in the classroom will be obsolete very soon after you graduate. That’s why what happens in the classroom isn’t the most important part of college. It’s the complete experience that counts.”
In a speech focused on the majority of graduates who will be moving on to college, including several who will be attending Northeastern, Aoun offered three lessons that he described as counterintuitive:
- Don’t have a plan.
- Get out of the classroom.
- Reinvention never stops.
He reminded the graduates that the unfortunate surprises of the COVID-19 pandemic had strengthened them with “a resilience that may have surprised you and your families.”
With the understanding that future events defy prediction, he warned the graduates that the average college student changes majors three times. He cited this as a positive entering the next phase of their lives.
“Exploration is one of the most exciting parts of higher education,” he said. “Exploration of new interests and new ideas. Exploration of the world. And of yourself.”
This is not the time for ironclad plans, Aoun insisted in affirmation of Lesson No. 1.
“It’s a time for deciding who you want to be and what you want to do,” he said.
Getting out of the classroom—Lesson No. 2—is the first step toward experiential learning, he said.
“Experiential learning is the most powerful way to transform knowledge into capability,” Aoun said. “Co-ops, internships, service, entrepreneurship, solving real world problems: The world needs you.
“The climate crisis, pandemics, racial inequality—our challenges are complex.”
The pursuit of growth experiences should not be a lonely endeavor, said Aoun while citing the powerful networks that were developed by Dr. Martin Luther, Steve Jobs, and other visionary leaders.
“Teamwork means getting along with people who have vast, sometimes annoying, differences in perspective,” Aoun said. “Learning to embrace this diversity is a big part of college. And it’s a big part of living in our interconnected world.”
He explained Lesson No. 3—the necessity of reinvention—by referring to the global realities of technological change.
“Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and genetic engineering are disrupting every profession,” Aoun said. “Whether you’re a doctor, an airline pilot, a journalist, a nurse, or an engineer, you will need to reskill or even reinvent yourself. Work is increasingly automated, so human beings will have to concentrate on what machines cannot emulate: imagination, creativity, empathy, cultural agility.
“Because technology never stops, reinvention cannot stop,” he continued. “This may sound uncomfortable. Your life journey is not set once and for all. But reinvention will lead you to discover new horizons and new passions. I assure you, there is joy in reinvention.”
Aoun was at ease in this setting. He told the graduates that he too had benefited from a Jesuit education while growing up in Lebanon, a tradition among the boys in his family, and that he had been inspired to become a linguist and to move to the United States by his mentor at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, Father Peter-Hans Kovenbach.
“As the president of an academic institution, I can tell you there is no stronger foundation on which to build a flourishing life of the mind, and also a life of action and impact,” Aoun said. “Every day, I rely on the values I learned at College Notre Dame in Lebanon. They are the same ones taught here: Competence, conscience, and compassion. This is a powerful combination.”
As he looked out upon the audience of graduates in their white tuxedo jackets and maroon bow ties, Aoun jokingly apologized for not following the dress code.
“I have never seen a group of better-dressed graduates,” Aoun said. “And I spent 25 years living in Hollywood.”
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