One of the nation’s leaders of the same-sex marriage movement, Commencement speaker Evan Wolfson encouraged graduates to embrace individual differences, acknowledge societal flaws and work together to build a better future for all during the Northeastern Illinois University ceremony on May 9, 2016, at UIC Pavilion.
“The story of America, our country, is that despite its flaws and imperfections, its falling short of its promise, we the people can form a more perfect union,” Wolfson said.
Northeastern awarded Wolfson an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of his achievements. Among his many accomplishments and accolades, Wolfson was the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, the successful campaign driving the strategy to win marriage for same-sex couples throughout the United States. The historic Supreme Court decision on June 26, 2015, was the culmination of the movement he helped build and the strategy his campaign drove over many decades.
“As an institution whose mission is to prepare a diverse community of students for leadership and service in our region and in a dynamic multicultural world, Northeastern Illinois University is proud to honor such an extraordinary individual, and to invite him to become a part of the legacy of our University,” President Sharon Hahs said. “Evan Wolfson exemplifies well the University values of Northeastern ... and he serves as a role model to inspire our students as they find their way in our complex world.”
Wolfson referenced Northeastern’s mission and commitment to diversity in making his points about the need for participation in the political process as the country confronts struggles with racism, sexism, exclusion and discrimination.
“The challenges are many, and right now there is nothing America needs more than ‘a diverse community of students prepared for leadership and service in a dynamic and multicultural world,’” he said, quoting directly from Northeastern’s mission. “Happily, there is no challenge we face now in America that cannot be undone by ‘a diverse community of students prepared for leadership and service in a dynamic and multicultural world.’”
Wolfson quoted former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, poet Richard Blanco, playwright George Bernard Shaw and even the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” about founding father Alexander Hamilton as he delivered his message of the value of contributing to and participating in a healthy society.
“True to life, the musical ‘Hamilton’ portrays how even the most accomplished people—indeed, all human beings—are flawed,” Wolfson said. “Even the greatest are sometimes undone by their flaws, and we see it in the show and in our own lives how important it is to have not just one’s work, one’s achievement, but family, friends, love. Hamilton’s life story, much like a commencement ceremony, celebrates both independence and interdependence.”
Wolfson concluded by calling on the graduates to shape their own futures.
“We need you,” he said. “Your country needs you. The world, America, a future of challenge and hope ... all are waiting for your engagement, your service, your leadership. Take your shot. You’ve earned it.”
Engagement was a recurring theme among the Commencement speakers.
President Hahs challenged students on three points: to live with integrity, to be lifelong learners and to be good citizens and give back.
“I congratulate you and commend you for your accomplishments,” she said. “As you leave here today, know that we have confidence in the future because we have confidence in you. We are proud of you.”
Student speaker Nina Page earned her bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The first person in her family to graduate from college, Page is an area manager to a team of senior service case managers in some of the most challenging areas of Chicago.
“As I go forward, I will use my degree to continue working with my families in the inner-city neighborhoods of Chicago, because we need to see positive changes in this world that lift people up and give them hope for a better way of life,” Page said. “My fellow graduates, we all need to continue our journey and become lifelong learners. We must take what we have learned from our professors and classmates and work to change what’s wrong with our world, whether it’s working with inner-city families like me or whatever your passion may be.”
Board of Trustees Vice Chair Jin Lee reminded graduates that they will always be a part of the Northeastern community.
“Take what you've learned at Northeastern and allow it to polish the lens on the world you are about to engage,” he said. “Don't forget that it is a privilege to be here. Dig as deep as you have to, and rise as high as you can. Keep your passion. Make mistakes and learn from them. Honor curiosity and follow it.”
Also at the Commencement ceremony
- This was Wolfson’s first commencement address.
- Brian Schultz, professor and chair of the Department of Educational Inquiry and Curriculum Studies, was presented with the Bernard J. Brommel Distinguished Research Professor award.
- Interdisciplinary Studies graduate Isabel Restrepo announced that the Class Gift scholarship fund collection for 2016 is nearly halfway to its record-setting goal of $6,000. “Thank you, fellow graduates,” Restrepo said. “As much as Northeastern has changed each of us, we have also made our mark on Northeastern. Through the Class Gift, we let future students know that we are there for them through it all, until the day they stand where we are now.”
- 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 Erica Sauder.
- Provost Richard J. Helldobler recognized Jerry Pollard, who graduated with Summa Cum Laude honors. At the age of 84, Pollard is one of the oldest students to earn his first bachelor’s degree in Northeastern’s history. “We congratulate you, Mr. Pollard, on this achievement today,” Helldobler said.
Top photo, from left: Provost Richard J. Helldobler, Board of Trustees Vice Chair Jin Lee, Evan Wolfson and President Sharon Hahs