Commencement speaker Maria Woltjen standing at a lectern and addressing the audience

Monday, May 6, 2019

Activist, lawyer and immigration law scholar Maria Woltjen encouraged students to take ownership of their personal stories during Northeastern Illinois University’s Commencement ceremony on May 6, 2019, at Credit Union 1 Arena in Chicago.

Northeastern awarded Woltjen an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of her achievements. Among her many accomplishments, Woltjen is the founder and Executive Director of The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago Law School. The Young Center’s primary work is to advocate for the safety and well-being of unaccompanied and separated immigrant children. Woltjen’s focus is on reforming the immigration system—in which children are treated as adults—into a justice system that recognizes children as children, with rights and protection needs all their own.

“Each person you meet has a story,” Woltjen said. “Each of you, the Class of 2019, no doubt, has made a remarkable journey to get here today. It’s what made this country so extraordinary. There is no single story. There is no single narrative.”

Woltjen, a full-time faculty member at the University of Chicago, was named a 2018 Chicagoan of the Year by Chicago Magazine. She received the 2013 Ruth Goldman Award from the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy for her tireless commitment protecting the rights of immigrant children, especially those who enter the United States without a parent or guardian. Woltjen also received the 2017 UNICEF Chicago Humanitarian Award and was named a 2019 Global Citizenship Hero by the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois.

“This is an extraordinary university, and you are all so fortunate to have attended a school that prides itself on diversity of race, ethnicity and age,” Woltjen said. “Each of you here today brings to the world a sense of what it means to work hard, to persevere, to maintain faith in yourself.”

Perseverance was a recurring theme among the Commencement speakers. Board of Trustees Acting Chair George Vukotich congratulated the graduates on the hard work that led to their personal success.

“As you move on from Northeastern, you will meet new challenges and opportunities,” he said. “Seize those with the same vigor you have demonstrated here, and you will go far.  The world is your classroom. Go out there and make it work for you.”

Northeastern President Gloria J. Gibson acknowledged the graduates’ important support networks of friends, family, teachers and classmates.

“Let’s never forget, many of you are here today because others gave you a foundation of support and encouragement needed to complete rigorous academic programs,” she said. “Maybe they gave you money to go to college. Maybe they made sure the house was quiet so you could study for your finals. Maybe they gave you a pep talk when you really needed it. Whatever the case, they had faith in you, and sometimes that’s all you need to get through any challenge.”

Gibson ended her address by looking to the future.

“Having Northeastern as part of your credentials and on your resume tells the world that you are ready for leadership and service in our region and in a dynamic multicultural world,” she said. “I am confident you will shape our future success. And I can’t wait to see how you make the world a better place.”

Student speaker Becca Peterson, who earned her bachelor’s degree in English and Secondary Education and a minor in Linguistics, reflected on the lessons learned during her unconventional path to a college degree.

“No matter where you thought you would be or what you thought your path was, it’s OK to learn as you go. It’s OK to get frustrated. And it’s OK to make changes,” she said. “But what is not OK and what you should never do, is follow a path that simply isn’t for you. Pardon how cliché this is going to sound, but do yourself the courtesy of trusting yourself, because no one knows what is best for you better than you do.”

Also at the Commencement ceremony

  • Professor of Psychology Ruth (Breckie) Church was presented with the Bernard J. Brommel Distinguished Research Professor Award.
  • Northeastern honored seven faculty members who earned emeritus status: Associate Professor of Management and Marketing Rasoul Afifi, Professor of Counselor Education Lee Beaty, Professor of Communication, Media and Theatre Rodney Higgenbotham, Professor of Biology Mary Kimble, Professor of Justice Studies Dragan Milovanovic, Dean Wamucii Njogu, and Professor of Social Work Jade Stanley.
  • Anthropology graduate Yadira Alonzo-Espinoza announced that the Class Gift scholarship fund collection has raised more than $1,900 so far this year.
  • The processional and recessional were performed by the University Wind Ensemble and conducted by Associate Professor of Music Travis Heath. The national anthem was performed by Gretel Mink Hansen.
  • Northeastern recognized Bob Dwyer, who at the age of 90 became the University’s oldest graduate on record. Dwyer received a standing ovation from the audience.

Top photo: Maria Woltjen delivers her Commencement address to the graduates.