Photo of NEIU 2021 Distinguished Alumnus Miguel del Valle addressing graduates during Commencement wearing a graduation gown and his Master of Arts hood with yellow flowers in the edge of the frame against a blue background

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Northeastern Illinois University alumnus Miguel del Valle called on graduates to support those who seek higher education during the University’s Commencement ceremonies on Dec. 12 at Credit Union 1 Arena in Chicago. 

“I urge you to find ways to advocate for those who have a strong desire to pursue higher education, a higher education that provides them with the opportunities to open doors that will now be open to you” del Valle said in his pre-recorded address. 

Sunday’s ceremonies marked the first time in nearly two years Northeastern has held in-person Commencements. As is tradition, del Valle—the 2021 Distinguished Alumnus—delivered remarks to the graduating class. 

Del Valle earned a Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education-Spanish in 1974 and a Master of Arts in Guidance and Counseling in 1977. He was the first Latino senator in the Illinois General Assembly and first Latino City Clerk of Chicago. Del Valle was elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1986. In his 20 years of service in the Assembly, he became Assistant Majority Leader and served as Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Consumer Affairs Committee, and Senate Select Committee on Education Funding Reform, and was Vice Chairman of the Higher Education Committee and a member of the Revenue, Appropriations, Labor, and Executive Committees. He was also a co-founder of the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus and a member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus.

“I knew NEIU would allow me to develop skills that would open doors not only for myself, but for my community, which has limited access to higher opportunity,” said del Valle, who currently serves as president of the Chicago Board of Education. “It was at NEIU that I learned the meaning of advocacy, of fighting for social change, for equal opportunity. NEIU put me on a trajectory that even today, even after retirement, has me advocating for increased access to higher education.”

Del Valle also reflected on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the burden of student loans, and the advantages of earning a college degree. 

“When the pandemic struck two years ago, it hit us hard,” del Valle said. “Everyone has been, in one way or another, adversely affected.” He continued, “Despite these unprecedented challenges and many times painful experiences you persisted, you stayed the course that has led you to the acquisition of a valuable credential. These degrees will open doors and allow you to consider more career options.”

President Gloria J. Gibson addressed the graduates, encouraging them to reflect on what they’ve accomplished and to appreciate all who helped them achieve their goals.  

“You have struggled through experiences that generations before you did not have to navigate—particularly over the past year and a half,” Gibson said. “You faced unprecedented challenges and you persevered. I know many of you faced incredible obstacles to earn your degree. I am in awe of how you rose to the occasion time and again to get to this day and achieve your goal. You assure me day in and day out that you are ready to be leaders.”

Board of Trustees Chair Jim Palos noted the importance of expressing appreciation and using gifts to benefit others.

“This is a time to be grateful,” Palos said. “To give thanks to parents and siblings and extended family and friends, who nurtured those gifts; a day of gratitude for the many who have supported you along the way; a day of deep appreciation for our faculty members who have shared knowledge and with pride have seen you mature intellectually.” He continued, “We at Northeastern are very proud of you, and we wish you every success, understanding that success will be about serving other people.”

The August 2021 student speaker was Morgan Herron, who earned his Master of Business Administration degree from the College of Business and Technology

“As a returning student, I came to NEIU with mixed emotions,” Herron said. “I was excited to fulfill my dream of obtaining an advanced degree. I was trepidatious of my ability to enter back into academia after many years. But, most of all I was grateful for the opportunity to make myself marketable in a competitive job market. Today, like many of you, I feel the gravity of this achievement. The sacrifice, the long hours away from family and friends, the stress of midterms and finals, and we did it all in the midst of a global pandemic.”

Herron is a Chicago area business executive and entrepreneur. He has held leadership roles at large corporations such as McDonald's and Ben & Jerry’s and is currently working for GoHealth, a Chicago-based, publicly traded health insurance company. Additionally, Herron was recently inducted into the Beta Gamma Sigma International Business honor society.

The December 2021 student speaker was Ginna Watson, who delivered her remarks via a pre-recorded video. Watson served as the Vice President of the Student Advisory Council for the College of Business and Technology and participated in Dean Michael Bedell’s Executive Advisory Board as a student leader. She was also Chief of Staff for the Student Government Association. Over the summer, Watson interned at Northern Trust, one of the largest banking institutions in the U.S. Through this internship, she had the opportunity to work on different projects to apply the skills and knowledge she acquired during her time at NEIU. Upon graduation, Watson plans to work at Northern Trust as a full-time Rotational Development Associate in Corporate Finance.

“We dared to continue on our path despite the many challenges we faced,” Watson said. “For some of us, it may have been inconveniences, like not being able to attend graduation. For others, it meant double shifts at work, losing income, taking a break from school, or studying while grieving the loss of a loved one. Tonight, as we step into a new chapter of our lives, we celebrate those decisions that may have been difficult at the beginning but have now given us the most gratifying long-term results. And tonight, I invite you to continue daring.

Watson, who was also a returning student, earned her Bachelor of Science in Finance with a minor in Data Analytics from the College of Business and Technology

“At the beginning of my time at NEIU, my goal was to go to school, hope that no one would notice that I was an ‘older’ student, get a degree, and finally get a job that didn’t require any special skills,” Waton said. “Back then, I did not think of myself as young enough to compete with others in my field or good enough to deserve a rewarding job. However, as I became more involved in campus life and had the opportunity of taking leadership positions in my classes and a few organizations, I learned some of the most valuable lessons of my life.” 

After diplomas were awarded, Gibson challenged graduates to use their new skills to make the world a better place, let everyone know they are a Northeastern Illinois University graduate, and to stay connected to the University.

“Tell your story because it is unique and important,” said Gibson during the August 2021 Commencement. “I am so very, very proud of each and every one of you.”

Also at the Commencement ceremonies:

  • Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Executive Director of the NEIU Foundation Liesl Downey announced the 2021 Class Gift raised more than $3,400 thanks to over 130 donations at the August 2021 ceremony.
  • Kelvin Trejo, who graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Human Resource Development and minor in Spanish, presented the NEIU Foundation with the 2021 Class Gift during the December 2021 ceremony.   
  • The national anthem was led by Robert Heitzinger, chair of the Department of Music and Dance Program.
  • COVID-19 protocols were followed for the ceremonies: 
    • All who participated had to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of each ceremony. 
    • Masks were required for all.
    • Social distancing was practiced inside the arena by both participants and audience members.