Northeastern Illinois University alumnus Billy Ocasio told his personal story of perseverance as he encouraged the graduates to dream big during the University’s Commencement ceremony on Dec. 16 at UIC Pavilion in Chicago.
“I don’t know your personal stories, but I’m sure that you each have had to face challenges, major disappointments or setbacks, but I also know that you are here today because you are overcomers,” he told the graduates. “What you do next is what truly sets you apart. You are part of a great legacy and tradition here at NEIU. It’s important that you don’t become complacent with this degree. You must continue to dream big.”
Ocasio, who earned his Board of Governors bachelor’s degree in 1992, is the chief executive officer at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture. Previously he served as the senior advisor to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn appointed to work on social justice issues. Prior to his appointment, Ocasio served as the 26th Ward alderman in the Chicago City Council.
“You all should be very proud of yourself because graduating from college is no small feat, and I know because it took me 12 years to finish my bachelor’s degree,” said Ocasio, who was presented with the highest honor Northeastern bestows upon alumni, the Distinguished Alumnus Award. “Completing my bachelor’s degree meant the world to me. Nothing could replace the value it has brought to my life.”
Ocasio is a lifelong resident of Humboldt Park, where he attended Von Humboldt Elementary School and Roberto Clemente Community Academy. After earning his degree from Northeastern, Ocasio gave his tassel and cap to his parents as a reminder that their sacrifices had led to his success.
“I was representing my community, their hopes and dreams, and my desires to truly make a difference,” Ocasio said.
This was the first Commencement ceremony presided over by Gloria J. Gibson, the seventh president of Northeastern. During her remarks, Gibson encouraged the graduates not to think of this accomplishment as an ending, but as a beginning of the next phase of their lives.
“You’ve mastered the coursework. You’ve completed your last final exam. You’ve assured the faculty that you are ready,” she said. “The diplomas you are about to receive aren’t just being handed to you. You have earned them. And that’s the main reason for this great celebration.”
Gibson asked the graduates to thank the family, friends, teachers and classmates who helped them along their educational paths.
“It will not be enough that you take your new skills and knowledge and apply them to the real world,” Gibson said. “What we expect is that you will also lead. In fact, it will be your new responsibility to lead, and we need you to be those dynamic, energetic individuals.”
Board of Trustees Chair Wes Becton commended the graduates for their perseverance even during moments when they might have doubted themselves.
“As you think about the time you spent at Northeastern, this group of graduates has been though a lot in this state. Through all of that, you persevered,” Becton said. “In the workplace, that’s what will be required of you.”
Student speaker Jorge Matos told a personal story of growing up in a rough neighborhood of Chicago, making some poor choices and then regaining control of his life with the power of an education.
“It all came to a point when we couldn't sweep the problems under the rug anymore and I had to face the consequences,” said Matos, who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University Without Walls program. “The consequence of being kicked out of school at the age of 16.”
After earning a GED in 2001, Matos began working with at-risk youths through a nonprofit organization in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.
“Over 12 years, I have mentored over a couple hundred young people—connected them to services they need, resolved conflicts with them, negotiated with them,” said Matos, who is now the first member of his family to earn a college degree. “These youth have taught me to never give up, to set a goal and do everything in my power to achieve it, and to know that just because someone started down the wrong path doesn’t mean they’re all bad. I have shared my story with them and will do so over and over again because I believe a supportive, caring environment and education can take you far and wide.”
Also at the Commencement ceremony:
- Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Laurie Fuller was presented with the Audrey Reynolds Distinguished Teaching Award.
- Northeastern honored Professor Emerita of Chemistry Ana Fraiman.
- Byron Terry, who graduated with a master’s degree in Inner City Studies, presented the NEIU Foundation with a Class Gift of more than $5,400 from more than 200 donors from the Class of 2018.
- 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 Emma Oberdick.