Alumnus Michael Orona addresses the graduates at the December 2019 Commencement ceremony

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Northeastern Illinois University alumnus Michael Orona challenged the Class of 2019 graduates to recognize themselves as citizens of a greater community during the University’s Commencement ceremony on Dec. 15 at Credit Union 1 Arena in Chicago.

“We live in an integrated word,” he said. “The term that most people use is ‘global village,’ a world of interdependence, not fully equal but nevertheless interdependent. Whatever happens around the world will have an effect on you, your family and this community. ... A new era is upon us and you, the Class of 2019, have been given a new responsibility to bring forth an ever-advancing civilization to be better informed than those who have gone before you, and to seek knowledge, the independent investigation of truth and service to all of humanity.”

Orona, who earned his Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice in 1992, serves as division chief in the U.S. Department of State’s African Affairs Bureau. He has spent the past 18 years serving an array of senior-level foreign policy advisory positions with the State Department.

“The opportunity for you to create change is endless and exists in all facets of society,” said Orona, who was presented with the highest honor Northeastern bestows upon alumni, the Distinguished Alumnus Award. “So who among you will find a cure for cancer, AIDS or other deadly diseases? Who among you will win the Nobel Peace Prize? Who among you will design automobiles that are more efficient and environmentally friendly? Who among you will have the courage to support the dreams of others?”

Orona currently oversees foreign policy formulation and chairs senior-level U.S. government meetings focused on a variety of issues facing Africa. During the Obama administration, Orona served as special advisor to the State Department’s Under Secretary for Political Affairs during the tenure of Secretary of State John Kerry. In 2004, Orona helped to establish the U.S. State Department’s Atrocities Documentation Team. The evidence gathered by the team led directly to the U.S. government’s historic determination of genocide in Darfur.

“It is no longer enough just to go to college and earn a degree,” Orona said. “What matters is what you do with the new job that you have and what you do with the amount of money that you make. ... Let integrity and righteousness distinguish you in all your future endeavors. You have been given the reins and now the responsibility is yours. Today I ask you to be of service to the world.”

During her remarks, President Gloria J. 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 your 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 Jim Palos commended the graduates and asked them to always think of the perspectives of others.

“May life for all of us always be about others. This I suggest is what makes for a happy and successful life ... living for others,” Palos said. “As you leave Northeastern, may you continue to always develop the natural gifts you have received. May you see that these are gifts that are meant to be given away in serving other people. May you find joy and purpose in so living.”

Student speaker Michael Angelo Ortega focused on the “lifelong” nature of earning a degree.

“Each and every one of you graduates is about to embark on a lifelong journey that instills everything you have worked for, and everything you have learned throughout your educational career that will stay with you for the rest of your life,” said Ortega, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in Physical Education.

During his time at Northeastern, Ortega was involved in a variety of volunteer opportunities including serving as treasurer for the Health & Physical Education (H&PE) student organization and helping at numerous on-campus events. He presented at the student symposium in Spring 2019 and was part of an undergraduate research team that collected data and presented at the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (IAHPERD) state conference in November. Ortega plans to teach at a high school, educating students on the importance of lifelong physical fitness.

“Whether you are graduating from the College of Education, College of Business and Management, or College of Arts and Sciences, you will have the capacity to create change in each new environment,” Ortega told the graduates. “You will not change what is already in place, you will not try to fix bad habits in a work field, but rather you will completely restore an atmosphere with the intelligence and creativity you have gathered from your time here at Northeastern. Graduation is not the end of your journey. It is in fact the start of a lifelong commitment that you have made to ensure the greatness that you will all accomplish in the time to come.”

Also at the Commencement ceremony:

  • Associate Professor of Mathematics Sarah Cordell was presented with the Audrey Reynolds Distinguished Teaching Award.
  • Northeastern honored Associate Professor Emerita Lorie Annarella, Professor Emerita Ana Gil Garcia, Professor Emerita Michele Kane and Professor Emeritus Mark McKernin.
  • John Rayburn Jr., who graduated with Bachelor of Arts in Communication, Media and Theatre, presented the NEIU Foundation with a Class Gift of more than $4,400 from more than 185 donors from the Class of 2019.
  • 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 Bethany Jargstorf.
  • Married couple Ruby and Joel Rodriguez both participated in Commencement after earning their bachelor’s degrees from the University Without Walls program.