Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul encouraged graduates to embrace change at Northeastern Illinois University’s Commencement ceremony on May 12 at Credit Union 1 Arena.
Northeastern awarded Raoul an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of his service to the people of Illinois. Raoul was born in Chicago to Haitian immigrants. He launched his legal career as a Cook County prosecutor and went on to be a partner at two national corporate law firms. He also served as an Illinois State Senator for 14 years. Throughout his career, he has fought to uphold the civil rights of all individuals by defending access to quality healthcare and reproductive health services for all, protecting our natural resources, fighting for just immigration policies and curbing gun violence. He was sworn in as Illinois’ 42nd Attorney General in 2019 and took the oath to serve a second term on Jan. 9, 2023.
Raoul reminded graduates that while today is a day to celebrate all they’ve accomplished, they may face more challenges throughout their lives. When those moments occur, Raoul emphasized that moments of “failure,” can be opportunities for growth.
“I made three unsuccessful attempts at elected office before I finally became a state senator,” Raoul said. “That means I’m a three-time loser. In baseball—three strikes and you’re out. Yet, striking out doesn’t mean you’re out of the game or out of a career. You get another at bat. Strikeouts are a necessary consequence for even the greatest home run hitters in history.”
Raoul, a graduate of DePaul University who went on to earn his law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law, reminded graduates that no one knows what lies ahead, but sometimes unforeseen challenges can bring unexpected success.
“Please do not allow failures to make you fearful of taking a swing or shooting your shot in whatever endeavor you’re seeking out in your respective careers.” He continued, “Whatever your course, whatever your future endeavors, do leave room for surprises; leave room for temporary failure, for changes in the world and changes in yourself. That is how you will make the journey count and that is indeed how you will achieve great success.”
The theme of overcoming obstacles was prevalent throughout the ceremony. Northeastern Illinois University Board of Trustees President José Rico (B.A. '99 University Without Walls—Nontraditional Degree Programs) shared that while he was a student at Northeastern, he always felt he “belonged” and was “valued.” He encouraged graduates to enjoy their moment and be grateful they were able to celebrate together—with their peers, instructors, family and friends—as many Commencements in years past were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Today not only do we commemorate and celebrate the hard work and the perseverance that brought you here today, but today we also have to remember that not only have we survived, but we have thrived what has upended our lives over the last three years,” Rico said.
Northeastern President Gloria J. Gibson also recognized the many challenges the graduates faced to cross the stage on Friday.
“You will make a difference,” Gibson said. “You will break barriers. How do I know this? Because many of you already have. Some of you are the first in your family to earn a college degree. Some of you worked two, three jobs on top of taking course work. Some of you balanced work and home life with school work, not just of your own school work, but that of your children or younger siblings. You did it!”
Kevin Baez, who graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. in Computer Science, was the student speaker. Baez was heavily involved in academic and extracurricular activities. He was part of the University Honors Program, a peer mentor for the Living Learning Communities, a member of Alpha Psi Lambda and the Student Government Association, and was the student representative for the Faculty Senate. He also helped initiate the Soccer Club and participated in multiple research projects in the fields of cybersecurity, human-computer interaction, and artificial intelligence.
Baez shared that academic achievements were fueled by his parents, who are first-generation immigrants. Growing up in a predominantly low-income Latinx community, he saw at a young age how “poverty, ethnicity, language and migrant status interwove with one another to form a revolving door of poverty from which escape seemed impossible.” He witnessed his parents struggle and began working with his father in low-paying construction jobs at the age of 13, and felt the effects of gang and gun violence throughout his community.
“I faced plenty of obstacles on my path to academic success, but because of the resources and support provided by this University, my family and my friends, I have been able to overcome them and strive not only academically, but personally and professionally too,” said Baez.
He shared that, as an undocumented student, he worried that obtaining an education beyond high school might not be attainable due to his status. However, Baez was guided to Northeastern by Interim Assistant Dean for Undocumented Student Resources and Student Care Quintiliano (Quinti) Rios-Perez, and his dream of completing a college degree became a reality.
“NEIU is one of the few institutions that offers up to full-ride scholarships open to anybody regardless of their immigration status,” Baez said. He continued, “NEIU has truly been a blessing to my academic career and for that, I will always be grateful. I’m glad to be able to call NEIU my second home.”
Also during the Commencement Ceremony
- The processional and recessional were performed by the NEIU Faculty Brass Ensemble. The national anthem was performed by Melanie Budreck (current student, B.A. Music).
- The ceremony was interpreted for the deaf and hard of hearing by Emily Turner, Nate Noel, Bonnie Schultz, and Charlotte Buehling.
- Alvin Sadural Gutierrez (B.A. Elementary Education) announced that the Class Gift scholarship fund collection has raised more than $600 so far this year.
- The University recognized members of the Class of 1973 becoming part of the Golden Alumni Society, marking 50 years since their graduation from Northeastern. Each of the seven alumni at the ceremony were presented with a special 50th anniversary medallion.
- NEIU Alumni Advisory Board President Anthony Rodriguez welcomed the new alumni to the Alumni Association and announced all graduates will receive a complimentary NEIU lapel pin and one-year membership to the organization.