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Northwestern grads a ‘gorgeous lake of purple and white’ at the United Center

Kathryn Hahn to the Class of 2024: ‘Surrender, listen, live in the both/and’

CHICAGO --- For a class that started its college tenure socially distanced and learning from Zoom classrooms far from campus, its final hoorah June 9 at Northwestern University’s commencement was one of unity and celebration.

“The Northwestern Wildcats in the class of 2024 started out more like domestic cats,” said undergraduate student commencement speaker Claire Throckmorton. “More physically separate than any other first-year class that Northwestern has ever seen. But that distance didn’t keep us apart … the most important thing that we learned was that we are better together than we are alone.”

Instead of the typical outdoor backdrop of Ryan Field, which is currently being rebuilt, Northwestern’s 166th Commencement was held inside the United Center in downtown Chicago, where a jumbotron featured faces of the 7,720 graduates as they processed to their seats. A near-capacity crowd watched the commencement in person and close to 5,000 viewed it virtually.

As commencement speaker Kathryn Hahn described it, this was “a very special class.” One that missed their high school graduations and picked their next four years “sight unseen. Good choice.”

“I think that you have been through so much already, personally and historically,” said actress Hahn, who graduated in 1995 from Northwestern’s School of Communication and is now known for her roles in “WandaVision,” “Glass Onion,” “Step Brothers” and many others. “You understand the disappointment that gets swirled in with joy. And vice versa. You know that nothing is guaranteed and that your lives can be richer because of it.”

In his opening remarks, Northwestern University President Michael Schill also spoke of students enduring obstacles during their time at Northwestern to earn “one of the most valuable assets you will ever own: a Northwestern degree.”

“This has been a difficult year,” Schill said. “But I want to focus on this moment, right here, in the United Center, surrounded by your brilliant classmates, by the people who have loved and supported you all your life.”

‘Surrender to the moment, breathe and listen’

Having started her acting career in a variety of best friend roles, it was fitting that Hahn’s speech to the “gorgeous lake of purple and white, the greatest lake” felt akin to someone comforting their close friend as they embark on a new and daunting challenge. After all, she said, she was in their seats 30 years ago, which flew by in “a blink.”

“It happened overnight,” Hahn said, pointing at herself. “That is how fast it goes. That is how unexpected it is. Please remember this moment.”

Hahn spoke of holding “the both/and” — a concept known as experiencing more than one emotion in a given moment — being both excited and overwhelmed, feeling both grief and relief.

Her mantra while acting has been to be present, surrender to the moment and breathe, she said.

“You try to not anticipate,” Hahn said. “You stay loose and flexible. You let go of ideas of how you are going to play it. But most of acting, turns out, is listening. Everything else fades and you are there. There is no other time than the one you are in. In that sacred space the ideal is to hold all of the feelings of being alive because you are present. You live in the in between. The both/and.”

Hahn’s both/and of this moment, she said, was honoring the death of her father, who passed shortly after she was asked to be this year’s commencement speaker and honoring the beginning of Northwestern’s graduates’ lives.

To much applause, Hahn self-deprecatingly “paraphrased a paraphrase” of a William Blake quote, saying, “The most important thing of any generation to discover is if you change your attitude, you change everything. … It is your life. You can flip the switch from hate to empathy. Maybe life is less about being heard and more about what you hear.”

‘Stop being who you think other people want you to be and be yourself’

Graduate student speaker Shalom Mensu Ikhena applied to Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management while living in Abuja, Nigeria.

“I have spent the past few months contemplating why this experience has been so transformative,” Mensu Ikhena said. “I have finally arrived at an answer — it is because I have spent the last two years doing what I believe is the work of my lifetime and the work of all of our lifetimes. That is, to learn about ourselves just enough, that we can truly serve this world better. To find out how our individual pieces fit the puzzle of something that needs to be healed in the world.”

Hahn concluded her remarks echoing those sentiments of self-discovery and reflection.

“It is the time to stop being who you think other people want you to be and be yourself,” Hahn said. “Have values. Know the pleasure and ease of living according to those values. Live in the both/and. Be the artists you were born to be.”

Cheers for honorary degree recipients and exceptional teachers

Along with Hahn, three distinguished individuals received honorary degrees from Northwestern at the ceremony: American tennis executive and former professional tennis player Katrina Adams; four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Barstow; and chair of the Gravitational Wave International Committee David Reitze. All attended Northwestern as undergraduates.

For the 14th 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.