U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin encouraged graduates to pursue their goals with a combination of wisdom and compassion during Northeastern Illinois University’s Commencement ceremony on Dec. 11 at Credit Union 1 Arena.
Northeastern awarded Durbin an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of his service to the United States, the State of Illinois and, more specifically, his achievements in the U.S. Senate to pass legislation on behalf of students, and his fight to pass and protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In 2001, Durbin also introduced the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act to protect individuals who receive DACA from deportation, as well as allow them to have a path to U.S. citizenship.
In acknowledging the myriad of challenges students faced to get to their graduation—
“family, children, jobs, money concerns, personal challenges, and oh yes, a pandemic”—Durbin referred to the NEIU Class of 2022 as “incredible.”
“Clearly the words ‘I give up’ aren’t in your vocabulary,” Durbin said. “You were resourceful, resilient, remarkable, and now, as of today, you are officially a college graduate.”
He called on graduates—first generation, immigrants, DACA, Dreamers, and children of immigrants—to be specially recognized by the audience.
Durbin, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University, shared his personal story with the attendees. He noted his mother was brought to the United States at the age of two from Lithuania, and he, like Northeastern President Gloria J. Gibson, is from East St. Louis, Illinois. His mother, who he called a “Dreamer in her day,” pushed him and his brothers to attend college. She inspired him to introduce the Dream Act and continue to fight for it because if it passes, it will allow people to “come out of the shadows and once and for all earn their American citizenship.”
Durbin encouraged graduates to lean on their NEIU education, leading with wisdom and compassion to make meaningful contributions to society.
“There are well-schooled bigots and highly educated haters in this world; you know some, and I do too,” Durbin said. “History is filled with stories of men with heads full of facts and hearts full of stone. Your education will open many doors in your life. The real question is whether or not it will open your mind, but open your heart.” He continued. “I know NEIU takes education of the heart seriously.”
He also congratulated Northeastern on being the only public university in Illinois to create a scholarship program for Afghan refugees, once again connecting the head and the heart.
“The most important test, the test of our humanity, never ends,” Durbin said. “As you move forward into new jobs and new challenges, may you always remember to use the education in your head and the caring in your heart.”
Service to others was a key theme of the ceremony. Northeastern Illinois University Board of Trustees Officer Pro Tempore Marvin Garcia said the key to a successful life was living in service to others and encouraged graduates to use their skills wisely.
“As you leave Northeastern, may you continue to always develop the natural gifts you have received,” Garcia said. “May you see that these are gifts that are meant to be given away in serving others. May you find joy and purpose in so living.”
Gibson also encouraged graduates to make the world a better place and showered graduates with praise.
“I am confident that each and every one of you, in your own unique way, will lead and serve the dynamic, multicultural world you are stepping into, and I cannot wait to see what you do in the future,” Gibson said. “On behalf of the entire Northeastern Illinois University community— faculty, staff, students, alumni, our many friends and supporters, and those who for generations have worked to sustain this very special place—I extend to each of you our heartfelt congratulations and the very best. Congratulations, Class of 2022. I am very, very proud of you.”
Herminia Maldonado, who graduated with a B.A. in Spanish, also reflected on the importance of service and sacrifice. She gave a moving speech, recalling how her inspiration to complete her degree came from her daughter—a police officer—and her husband, a member of the U.S. Army who served for more than 35 years and who was killed in an accident during Operation Iraqi Freedom eight years ago. Before his passing, she assured him she would one day achieve her educational goals and used the time she had because of the COVID-19 pandemic to do just that.
“I was blessed with teachers who helped me to find my way,” Maldonado said. “Dr. Cloonan has been extremely helpful and supportive to me ever since the first day I began the application process to attend Northeastern Illinois University and has continued to be so to this very day. There is no way I would have been able to graduate from Northeastern Illinois University without my mentors.”
Her mentors also included her daughter. Moldonado shared that her daughter would often say to her, “Failure is not an option,” a quote attributed to Gene Kranz, NASA’s chief flight director during the Apollo 13 mission in 1970.
“As you can see, I finally am able to realize my dream today,” Moldonado said. She continued, “This experience and all I have accomplished has been amazing and it is definitely something I will carry for the rest of my life.”
Moldonado said she would like to pursue a master’s degree and, after, would like to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Department of Defense so she can assist veterans in overcoming the trauma and illness that occur because of war.
“I wish for all peace and success in your own journeys and to always remember: ‘Failure is not an option.’”
Durbin referenced Moldonado’s presentation in his own address, calling Moldonado’s presentation, “extraordinary.”
“If it’s within my power, Herminia, I can guarantee you this: When the time comes that you want to work for our government helping veterans and their families, I’m going to be right by your side,” Durbin said.
Gibson reminded the graduates that Northeastern is their “home,” encouraged them to visit often and prompted them to thank those who help them complete their degrees.
“At Northeastern, no one achieves their goals alone,” Gibson said. She continued, “I hope that you also take a moment to appreciate yourselves and exactly what you’ve done. You have struggled through experiences that generations before you did not have to navigate, particularly over the last few years. You faced unprecedented challenges and you persevered. I know many of you faced incredible obstacles to obtain your degree. I am in awe of how you rose to the occasion, time and time again, to get this day and to achieve your goal. You assure me day in and day out that you are ready to be the leaders of the future.”
Also during the Commencement Ceremony
- Communication, Media and Theatre graduate Javonti Mordican was awarded The Lincoln Academy of Illinois’ Student Laureate Award.
- The processional and recessional were performed by the NEIU Wind Ensemble and conducted by Associate Professor of Music Travis Heath. The national anthem was performed by Melanie Budreck (current student, B.A. Music).