Adapting a moment made famous by her former boss and mentor, Northeastern Illinois University alumna Alice McGee announced she had a special gift for the graduates during the University’s Commencement ceremony on Dec. 17 at UIC Pavilion in Chicago.
“You get a book! You get a book! All the graduates get a book!” McGee told the graduates, borrowing from the unforgettable words of Oprah Winfrey. “I hope it touches your lives.”
With a little help from her friend, McGee concluded her address to the graduates by informing them they all would receive a copy of Winfrey’s new book, “The Wisdom of Sundays: Life-Changing Insights from Super Soul Conversations.”
“It was my honor to work with Oprah all those years, but I would not have had the career I have had were it not for Northeastern,” she said.
McGee, who graduated from Northeastern in 1984 with a degree in Speech, was supposed to graduate in 1983. When she was offered an internship with a Winfrey-hosted show called “A.M. Chicago,” McGee decided to postpone her graduation. While the show’s name didn’t last, McGee did. She was hired as Winfrey’s first employee, rising from chief publicist to the role of senior supervising producer of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Eventually, McGee and Winfrey launched Oprah’s Book Club, which is responsible for the sales of millions of books.
“I managed to stand out as an intern because of Northeastern,” said McGee, who was presented with the highest honor Northeastern bestows upon alumni, the Distinguished Alumnus Award. “What I loved about working at Harpo Studios from 1984 to 2004 was the diversity. There was no majority; there was no minority. We were our own melting pot, and Northeastern prepared me for that. We had a lot of differences, but none of them was cultural.”
McGee won nine individual Emmy Awards for production of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” but it was not only Winfrey who drove McGee to have so much success in a career she loved. McGee also singled out one of her former professors, Bernard Brommel, as a longtime inspiration.
“I’ve been so blessed having great teachers inside the classroom and outside the classroom,” she said. “When you find meaning in your work, that’s when you’ve hit the jackpot.”
During his remarks to the graduates, Interim President Helldobler encouraged them not just to speak up over injustice, but to also listen.
Citing national current events around abuses of power, Helldobler noted that “it wasn’t until, collectively, we decided it was time to listen that real change has started.”
“As a graduate of the most diverse University in the Midwest, an institution that prides itself on social justice, you more than most have been given the skills to make these changes in our world,” Helldobler said. “It’s my simple message to you this afternoon, but an incredibly important one.”
Board of Trustees Chair Carlos Azcoitia reminded the graduates of their shared responsibilities.
“Education is a great deal if it teaches not only how to make a living but how to live,” he said. “Our university represents diversity and humanity, and wherever we go, we must highlight the dignity of each individual. The world is your classroom. Go out there and own it.”
That sentiment was echoed by student speaker Cesar Bustos.
“Yes, we have our degrees,” said Bustos, who graduated with a double major in Physics and Mathematics. “But we also need to keep in mind that even though we’re trying to better ourselves, we need to know how to use what we’ve learned to benefit the world.”
Also at the Commencement ceremony:
- Psychology Professor Maureen Wang Erber was presented with the Audrey Reynolds Distinguished Teaching Award.
- Northeastern honored Professors Emeriti Lawrence Berlin, Louise Bohr, Therese Schuepfer and David Yasutake, and Associate Professor Emeritus Charles Pistorio.
- DeMara Campbell, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, presented the NEIU Foundation with a Class Gift of more than $5,000 from more than 180 donors from the Class of 2017.
- Northeastern began a new Golden Alumni Induction tradition. Elizabeth David, Richard David, John Portenlanger and Antoinette Pratt from the Class of 1967 were inducted into the Golden Alumni Society.
- The processional and recessional were performed by the University Wind Ensemble and conducted by Department of Music Acting Chair Travis Heath. The national anthem was performed by Ahriel Mullings.