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Northwestern congratulates the Class of 2017

Equality advocate, sports icon Billie Jean King inspires Northwestern commencement

EVANSTON - Billie Jean King, global sports icon and pioneering advocate for equal rights and opportunities, told graduates at Northwestern University’s 159th commencement ceremony Friday, “It is time for your generation to win and to shape the future.”

Widely known for her advocacy for gender equity and gay rights in sports and in life, King referred to the millennial graduates as “by far the best generation ever” to embrace inclusion of the diverse groups of people who make up our nation. 

“Things are changing because of people like you,” she said.

In statements that particularly resonated with the crowd, she said, “Women in this class may be the first generation of women to see equal pay for equal work in their professional lifetime.

“Equal work for equal pay should not be a dream ... it should be one of the freedom cries for your generation,” she said, eliciting applause from the graduates and their families.

On a cloudy day with temperatures hovering near 80, King received an honorary degree and delivered Northwestern’s commencement address.

More than 10,000 people attended the 90-minute ceremony at Ryan Field honoring about 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The livestream of the address received 1,014 viewers from around the world, including China, Switzerland and Nepal.

When the announcer called out the names of Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and King on their way to the stage, the Commencement Symphonic Wind Ensemble performed Elton John’s 1975 smash hit single “Philadelphia Freedom,” written in honor of King, the superstar’s good friend. 

King and John were huge fans of each other when they first met in 1973, prompting the legendary hit maker to write a song in homage to King and the Philadelphia Freedoms, the tennis team she played for at the time. King and John’s friendship evolved into a powerful partnership in fundraising for causes including equal rights and HIV/AIDS.

Related: How the song "Philadelphia Freedom" came to be

In her speech, King stressed that happiness, the true barometer of success, should be what most drives the future.  

“You can follow the money, money, money, which is not bad, actually, but only if you never lose sight of your moral compass,” she said.

In a conversation with a few Northwestern undergraduates before commencement, King said she was heartened to hear they truly are looking forward to the day when they are measured by a common goal rather than by their GPAs.

“I hope you will accept that challenge and bring all of yourself — your mind, your heart and your guts — to everything you do,” she said.

Determined to understand why some people manage to achieve both inner and outer success, King said she has become convinced over the years that the reasons relate to: building supportive relationships, being committed to never stop learning and never stop learning how to learn, and being a problem-solver.   

“Relationships are everything,” King said, and the reason she delivered Northwestern’s commencement speech today. She cited Diane Stone, her executive assistant for 28 years and a Northwestern graduate who, while a student here, won the NCAA doubles championship with partner Katrina Adams.

King now bleeds purple, too, and she said everywhere she has gone recently, whether to Chicago, London or New York, people approached her about her commencement speech at Northwestern.

Word of the address, she joked, must have been painted on the Rock, the iconic Northwestern boulder that sits outside Harris Hall and that students have been covering with messages for generations. Or she said perhaps word about her address got out through “Saturday Night Live.”

“Northwestern has more SNL alums than any other university, so it's got to be that,” she suggested.

On a more serious note, she said, “It’s a privilege to be a part of the Northwestern community, a place where inclusion and equality are an important part of the culture.”

“We are all immigrants,” she said, immediately garnering loud applause from the crowd.

“Every single one of us is an influencer,” she observed. “Every single person. And, most importantly, we are all in this together. It is not what we can get out of life. It is what we can give to life that matters.”

At the close of her address, King said, “I want you to know how much I love being here. Go Cats! Go you NU! Go!”

King then surprised the audience by calling seven Northwestern tennis players to the stage, who, racquets in hand, began hitting balls into the crowd as the band once again performed “Philadelphia Freedom.” 

To Northwestern alumna Virginia Probasco, Class of ’67, the speech hit all the right notes.

“It’s great to be back 50 years later, and we’ve been back many times, because we have a daughter who is here also. We’re at least a three-generation Northwestern family.

“I thought the speeches were very appropriate to our particular times and the issues we live with. I thought they were on the mark,” she said.

Jacob Rosenblum introduces “fearless activist”

In his introduction of King, Class of 2017 student Jacob Rosenblum, a gay man, alluded to how King, “a fearless activist,” has been paving the way of inclusion for others ever since the long-ago days when King began advocating for gender and pay equity in professional tennis.

“The unshakeable, deep connections we formed [at Northwestern] were possible because we felt we could be ourselves with each other,” Rosenblum said, thanking King for advocacy that transformed society in once unimaginable ways.

“This kind of acceptance didn’t happen on its own, and it didn’t start with us,” he said. “This kind of acceptance is the result of years of hard, sometimes discouraging work, by people like Billie Jean King, for equality.”

Related: The voice that is Carl Alexander, singer of the national anthem

Rosenblum congratulated fellow graduates for doing what it took to be awarded a Northwestern degree, a difficult feat under any circumstances, giving particular credit to “all those who faced significant barriers to getting here, whether it was their ability, age, ethnicity, race, gender identity, gender expression, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.”

Though much remains to be done, he said, King is a great role model for those who need to continue the fight to be included.  

“I thank you for working before I was born to set up the kind of society that would embrace me the way it has here at Northwestern,” he said. “And I thank you for sticking it out even when it looked like the work was impossible, because it is thanks to you that I — and many of my fellow graduates — got here today.

Another trailblazer presents honorary degree to King

In a poetically fitting pairing, King’s honorary degree presenter was Teresa Woodruff, a pioneering Northwestern Medicine reproductive science researcher who played a central role in a recent new gender inclusion funding mandate that now requires scientists throughout the country to include female cells and animals in their studies.

“One of the most successful and celebrated athletes of our time, you have also been a leading voice for gender equity and LGBTQ rights,” Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer said to King as they stood on stage together.

Linzer cited the renaming of the National Tennis Center in honor of the sports icon and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, which King was awarded in 2009.

High school teachers who changed graduates’ lives

For the seventh year in a row, President Schapiro paid tribute in the ceremony to five high school teachers in the audience who were honored with Distinguished Secondary Teacher Awards. Every year Northwestern recognizes the teachers from high schools across the country who have deeply touched the lives of the seniors who nominated them.

President Schapiro gives shout-outs to grads' loved ones

In a beloved commencement tradition, Schapiro also celebrated the people most responsible for making the day possible, giving well-earned due to families and loved ones who filled the stadium.

“Not a single graduate would be here today without the support and encouragement of so many of you in the audience,” President Schapiro said.

He called out to grandparents, siblings, spouses, children, aunts and uncles, cousins, other family members and friends to stand up -- eliciting escalating applause as each group stood to be recognized.

Rocio Mendez-Rozo thanks loved ones and Northwestern family

On behalf of the Class of 2017, Rocio Mendez-Rozo, the first in her family to go to college, gave heartfelt thanks to families, friends, mentors and other members of the Northwestern community who made the moment possible.  

Loved ones, many of them in the stadium, made all the difference, she stressed.

“If your people are like mine, you admire their perseverance and relentless work in their careers,” she said. “They’re the kind of people who probably answered that first phone call when you got a C on a paper or exam during midterms or during your first finals experience.”

“They were the people who reminded you that you were and will always be enough in their eyes, the ones who reminded you that you belonged at a place like Northwestern even when it felt like you didn’t,” she said.

Along the way, the Class of 2017 got to witness a number of Northwestern milestones, Mendez-Rozo said, including getting to see the men’s basketball team qualify for the “The Dance” (the NCAA tournament).  

She also cited the Student Enrichment Services, “whose staff spends countless hours to help low income and first-generation students on our campus access resources they would not have otherwise.”

She thanked fellow graduates who “have dedicated their emotional and mental energy on making Northwestern a more unique and inclusive place,” closing with words that surely had great resonance for most of the audience.

“Mami and Papi, this moment is as much yours as it is mine.”

 More on honorary degree recipients

  • Billie Jean King, global sports icon and champion of social change and equality

King is a lifelong advocate for equality in sports and public life, especially in the areas of gender equality and LGBTQ rights. She is the first female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and her extraordinary tennis record includes a record 20 championships at Wimbledon.

  • Donald B. Rubin, the John L. Loeb Professor of Statistics at Harvard University

His groundbreaking contributions essentially defined new fields of statistics and influenced research across a wide range of disciplines, crucially affecting the work of all scientists using quantitative data. His methods are now embedded in statistical software used by virtually all empirical scientists.

  • Leslie Sadat, the James Carr Professor of International Criminal Law and director of the Harris World Law Institute at Washington University School of Law

A visionary, she has led the development of a significant field of international law -- crimes against humanity. She is particularly known for her work on the International Criminal Court and her efforts to draft and win adoption of a global treaty on crimes against humanity.

  • Garry Wills, professor emeritus of history at Northwestern

One of the most illustrious figures in American letters today, he specializes in American history, politics and religion. Wills received a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.” For a quarter of a century, he taught at Northwestern and was an esteemed member of the faculty.  

  • Wei Yang, president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China

Formerly the president of Zhejiang University and a professor at Tsinghua University, he is an international academic leader and scientific policymaker who has exerted a far-reaching influence in shaping the landscape of research and education in science and engineering.

Thanks to four University leaders who are moving on

President Schapiro gave special thanks to four Northwestern leaders who are leaving for retirement or future endeavors.

  • Northwestern’s provost and chief academic offer, Dan Linzer is departing to become president of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

“Thank you, Dan, for serving by my side for the past eight years,” Schapiro said. “Your integrity, brilliance and love of Northwestern have been an inspiration to me and to so many.”

  •  After seven years as dean of The Graduate School, Dwight McBride will leave to become executive vice president and provost at Emory University.

Dean McBride’s remarkable contributions include "recruiting the very best graduate students from a wide variety of educational backgrounds,” Schapiro said.  

  • School of Education and Social Policy dean Penelope Peterson is retiring from the University this summer after 20 years of service. 

Her "efforts over this extended period of leadership to create a student culture that embraces difference and a faculty culture that supports innovative research has transformed SESP and has been a model for the entire University,” President Schapiro said.

  • William Osborn, chair of the Northwestern Board of Trustees, is stepping down from that role. 

"Bill, you've been a mentor and a friend, and your alma mater, and I personally will always be in your debt,” Schapiro said.