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In students’ speeches, a nod to the ‘true power of community’

Flemming Li and Ji Hye Choi highlight the unprecedented challenges faced by members of the Class of 2023
During their speeches at Ryan Field, Flemming Li (left) and Ji Hye Choi (right) honored the unprecedented challenges their classmates have faced collectively by attending college during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photos by Jim Prisching

As part of Commencement this year, two students from the year’s graduating class — one a graduate student and the other a senior — had the opportunity to share their stories and lessons from their times at Northwestern.

Graduate speaker Flemming Li and undergraduate speaker Ji Hye Choi honored the unprecedented challenges their classes have faced being in school during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they turned to hope and gratitude for families, friends and the University for supporting them through such challenges.

Li kept her role at the graduation private so she could surprise family and friends at the ceremony with her speech. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music education from the Bienen School of Music in 2022 before completing her master’s degree in the same subject in 2023. Hailing from a family and culture of strict rules and intense lessons in Beijing, China, where she’d learned to “stay unseen and unheard,” Li said coming to Bienen was a healing experience where she discovered who she was.

“Music is a reflection and expression of our human impulses,” Li said. “And people bring it to life.”

After expressing appreciation for the many families she’d come to know in the U.S., Li closed her speech by thanking “my dearest alma mater,” a phrase she repeated in Mandarin.

Choi is South Korean and came to Northwestern as a first-generation, low-income student from Guam, coming from “generations of strong women in my life.” She earned her bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in Asian American studies and a certificate in civic engagement at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

“We should be proud of ourselves,” Choi told her classmates. “Education has transformed and empowered us in so many ways.”

Choi’s college path was marked by intense hardship when she was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer. She said she continued her classes because they took her mind off the sickness, which helped her learn about the “true power of community,” which “truly healed me.”

Now cancer-free, Choi will be completing a congressional internship in D.C. this summer before heading to South Korea on a Fulbright scholarship.

“Let us embrace difference, and recognize sameness,” Choi said. “Community is a powerful act of resistance in a world that tries to pull us apart.”

Each speaker received a standing ovation and hoots from beloved classmates.

Li and Choi shared with Northwestern Now some of their insights.

On the opportunity to address fellow grads

Li: I believe they sent an email to every graduating student, saying they were accepting applications for Commencement student speakers for this year. When I attended my first Commencement last year and saw there were student speakers, I thought, “That looks incredible. What would I say if I were ever in that position?” I was in awe. When I applied, I went in wanting to express my gratitude for Northwestern, because if I don't get the chance to be the student speaker, at least I got to say it to someone who is part of the University. And then I got the email: “We're thrilled to offer you the position!” 

Choi: I definitely felt a mix of nerves and excitement about delivering the student address. Representing our class at Northwestern is an immense honor, and I am so grateful for the opportunity. I hope I delivered a message that resonates with my peers, uplifts them for their future endeavors and celebrates and honors our collective journey.  

One piece of advice

Li: Always be grateful for everything and everyone who has helped you to get to where you are, and never be embarrassed to give credit to them. It's cheeky, and it's cliché, but I genuinely wouldn't be here if it weren't for my family, my friends and all my teachers and all the experiences that I've had, so I would say, always be grateful — and let them know!

Choi: Cherish your friends and those closest to you. Your community is your lifeline, so rely on them, give back and keep them close.

Enduring this strange moment in time

Li: The one thing I remember is how much effort all the music programs put in to come up with the most creative ways to engage us in lessons. I'm so appreciative of all the efforts of my professors because you could imagine, choir and piano online are just impossible!  

Choi: It has been a rollercoaster of experiences, for sure, but a transformative experience, nonetheless.

We asked other grads: ‘What have you learned?’

As part of our storytelling on the Class of 2023, Northwestern Now’s Hector Cervantes asked several other new grads to share what they’ve learned or valued during their college careers. Below is a series of excerpts from their replies.

“How much I love to analyze things.”
- Kathryn Bowman, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

“Don’t rush to grow up too fast.”
- Kalina Pierge, Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications

“I’m going to medical school.”
- George Bianco, Weinberg

“Guarding the Rock with friends.”
- Alec Abramson, School of Education And Social Policy

“Enjoying my passion for basketball this season.”
- Hank Vandergoe, Weinberg

“It is OK to not know what you are doing.”
- Sindhu Yegappan, Weinberg

“I learned to work with other people.”
- Simran Varshney, Weinberg

“A lot of time you need a collaborative approach.”
- Atrik Patel, Feinberg School of Medicine

“I grew up and became a real adult.”
- Valentina Velasco, Weinberg