Northeastern Illinois University alumnus Thomas White touched on themes of diversity, social responsibility and giving back during the University’s Commencement ceremony on Dec. 11 at UIC Pavilion in Chicago.
“Northeastern Illinois University is a microcosm of what America has to be,” he told the graduates. “You hold the key to diversity and inclusion to change our world.”
In his Commencement address, White noted Northeastern’s ranking as the most diverse university in the Midwest.
“I want each of you to be a guardian of diversity and inclusion,” he said. “I want you to be inclusive of all people to drive innovation. Understanding and harvesting the power of diversity and inclusion is a key to a better future for you. Take that as a gift that Northeastern has given you.”
White, who graduated from Northeastern in 1981 with a degree in Physical Education, was presented with the highest honor Northeastern bestows upon alumni, the Distinguished Alumnus Award.
White was a first-team All-American football player at Northeastern, and after graduation signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He held a variety of senior positions around the world, especially in Asia. He was president and CEO of AIA living in Thailand and senior regional executive of AIG Asia, responsible for Southeast Asia.
He held a variety of senior positions for Zurich Insurance Company, most recently having served as president of Farmers Non-Insurance Businesses. Prior to that he led the Global HR function for Zurich Insurance Group with 65,000 employees headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, and he served as CEO for Zurich Japan.
Despite those accomplishments, White focused his Commencement address instead on the international service and philanthropy he and his wife, Karen, have performed over their 37 years of marriage. Together, they have worked to help children with cleft palates through Operation Smile, built houses for tsunami victims and comforted abandoned babies with AIDS.
“What I find wonderful about Tom’s stories is that they aren’t about what he achieved,” Interim President Richard Helldobler said in presenting the Distinguished Alumnus Award. “His passion is about what he gave. He truly does embody our value of community and a sense of caring for each other and in fact does have everybody’s back.”
During his remarks to the graduates, Helldobler expressed his confidence in them.
“Your work ahead is both challenging and exciting,” he said. “The world now, more than ever, needs more graduates like Northeastern’s. No one knows for sure what the future will hold, but there is one prediction that I will confidently make: Life and society will grow increasingly more complex.”
Helldobler said his confidence in the graduates gives him optimism for the future.
“I challenge each of you to make us better as a country, make us more socially conscious, recognize the strength of our multicultural mosaic that, in fact, makes our nation great,” he said.
Board of Trustees Chair Carlos Azcoitia reminded the graduates of their first days at Northeastern.
“I’m sure that for many of you … graduation felt like it was a lifetime away,” he said. “But you had faith in your abilities, and now you are here. As you move on from Northeastern, you will meet new challenges and opportunities. Seize those with the same vigor you have demonstrated here, and you will go far.”
That sentiment was echoed by student speaker Sandy Alford.
“Set yourself up for success by believing that you will succeed,” said Alford, who earned a master’s in Business Administration. “As you walk into the job interview, tell yourself that you’re qualified because that is why you were chosen. By being confident in your abilities, you’ll be more relaxed, affable and in charge, thereby making you the best candidate.”
Also at the Commencement ceremony:
- Chemistry Professor Ana Fraiman was presented with the Audrey Reynolds Distinguished Teaching Award.
- Northeastern honored Professors Emeriti Rasoul Rezvanian, Sara Schwarzbaum and Conrad Worrill.
- Justice Studies graduate Terry Buck presented the NEIU Foundation with a Class Gift of more than $5,300 from more than 200 donors from the Class of 2016. “I’m proud to say that the Class of 2016 has set record high donation totals that surpassed all preceding class efforts,” Buck said.
- Presidents Emeriti Salme Steinberg and Sharon Hahs participated in Commencement as part of the platform party.
- The processional and recessional were performed by the University Brass Ensemble and conducted by Associate Professor of Music Travis Heath. The national anthem was performed by Christopher Hatcher.