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Resiliency, curiosity and empathy: Class of 2023’s unique bond

Northwestern graduates were ‘brought together by technology and tenacity’

The resounding theme of Northwestern University’s 165th Commencement on Monday, June 12, was one of resilience, curiosity and empathy.

On the partly cloudy, unseasonably cool day at Ryan Field in Evanston, speaker after speaker outlined the myriad challenges graduates have faced individually or collectively over the past four years. From enduring COVID-19 to battling personal illnesses to fighting historic racism, they have gotten through it by taking one step at a time, together, albeit remotely at times.

“Your ability to survive, adapt and even flourish through years of unparalleled challenge will serve you well as you take your place in the world outside our University,” said Northwestern President Michael H. Schill to the Class of 2023, delivering his first Northwestern Commencement welcome address just 10 days after his inauguration as Northwestern’s 17th president. “Out of great crises come great change and innovation.”

‘You share a unique bond’

The world is in a very different place from when this class first marched through the Weber Arch in 2019, Schill said, mentioning the now-exacerbated mental health crisis and the polarized political atmosphere.

“You share a unique bond,” Schill said. “All of you spent part of your Northwestern education navigating a pandemic, brought together for a time from your couches and kitchen tables by technology and tenacity. I know it wasn’t easy. You overcame what may be the greatest challenge you’ve yet faced in your life to earn the most valuable asset you’ll ever own: a college degree for which we are all so proud of you.”

He encouraged graduates to live by three tenets as they enter their next chapter in a world that has seismically shifted: remain curious, do not be afraid to fail and overcome bias, racism and hate. 

“Engage with people who may not look like you, believe in what you believe or vote the way you do,” Schill said. “I hope you leave here with the fervent belief in the value of free speech, and also the value of having empathy for the people who listen to your words.”

Chuegy, ‘non-trendy things still have a lot of wisdom to offer’

In his self-deprecating introduction — “Believe me, I, too, would rather be listening to Beyoncé give a speech today”— Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker proclaimed himself as the Class of 2023’s “oddball-character” commencement speaker who promised to deliver a short, funny address akin to the best he’d watched on YouTube during his research.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the best graduation speeches are a lot like your favorite sitcoms,” said Pritzker, a 1993 graduate of Northwestern’s law school. “So, give me and ‘The Office’ a chance to show you that non-trendy things still have a lot of wisdom to offer.”

‘The kindest person in the room is often the smartest’

Emphasizing staying strong in the face of adversity and expanding one’s worldview in his 22-minute address, the governor blended lessons from his own life — fatherhood, running a venture capital firm and managing Illinois’ response to COVID-19 — with the “uncommon wisdom and depth” of quotes from the Emmy Award-winning sitcom. He did it all while peppering in self-effacing one-liners, calling himself a “functional madman who answers the phone ‘YELLO’” and a “cheugy dad” (“I learned cheugy is a pejorative term meaning ‘uncool’ or ‘you’re trying too hard’”) who’s been known — much like the parents in the stadium — to overly worry about his kids. 

Pritzker explained that the kindest people in the room are often the smartest since those who act with cruelty “have failed the first test of an advanced society … and never forced their animal brain to evolve past its first instinct.”

He outlined how, during a crisis, one must choose core guiding values to get them through, and to avoid “paralyzing inertia” by making small decisions, which will beget bigger decisions.

Finally, recounting a rare light moment in the early days of the pandemic in which he watched his “battle-worn compatriots” fly paper airplanes to relieve stress and boost morale, he said “the good times are defined less by how old you are and more by the people you have around you.”

Throughout his address, Pritzker provided graduates with four pieces of advice: “Be more substance than show. Set aside cruelty for kindness. Put one foot in front of the other, even when you don’t know your way. And always try and appreciate the good old days when you are actually in them.”

‘Wittiness, open-mindedness and acceptance’

For the first year, Northwestern’s Commencement ceremony featured two student speakers: a graduate and an undergraduate student.

Flemming Li, who received her master’s degree in music education from the Bienen School of Music, said she credits her time at Northwestern — both as an undergraduate and graduate — for teaching her how to exercise her freedom.

“Growing up in a strict household and attending schools with austere rules, I learned to stay unseen and unheard,” Li said. “My colleagues, with their wittiness, open-mindedness and acceptance, encouraged me to share my stories and fully, truly express who I am.”

‘The true power of community’

Undergraduate student speaker Ji Hye Choi spoke of the power of community when facing hardships. During her sophomore year, amid COVID-19, she was diagnosed with stage-three ovarian cancer. She continued taking classes during her post-surgery recovery and chemotherapy.

“Of course, none of this was easy. I drew strength from the people around me, who showed up for me in ways I never could have imagined,” Choi said, expressing gratitude for her friends, professors, sister and, especially, her mother, who helped her get through it. “It was then that I realized the true power of community.”

Cheers for exceptional teachers

Along with Pritzker, four distinguished individuals received honorary degrees from Northwestern at the ceremony: Northwestern President Emeritus Morton Schapiro; Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, retired vice chancellor and co-founder of the University of Global Health Equity (UGHE), Rwanda; Sharon Bowen, commissioner of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission and chair of the Board of the New York Stock Exchange; and Luis Valdez, playwright, director and founder of El Teatro Campesino.

For the 13th year in a row, five high school teachers who inspired graduating seniors and had a lasting impact on their lives were honored with the Northwestern Schapiro Award. The award — formerly known as the Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award — recognizes teachers from around the world who were nominated by members of the graduating class.