Northeastern awarded Moreno an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of his achievements. Among his many accomplishments, Moreno launched Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects (JGMA) in 2010 with the sole purpose of transforming Chicago’s diverse communities with his architecture. Since then, JGMA has become one of the most highly acclaimed design firms in Chicago. Moreno’s personal dedication to community and social justice has been recognized both locally and internationally. He was named a 2017 Business Leader of Color and a 2016 Curbed Groundbreaker for his efforts to improve the functionality of the built world. In 2015, he was selected as a fellow of Leadership Greater Chicago, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed him to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.
“Today is not about me,” Moreno said. “If I could, I would take these lights and shine them on you, the graduates. You’re to be commended. You’re to be applauded, because I know your road has not been easy. It has not been linear. There have been barriers. There have been those who say you can’t, but this day has arrived.”
Moreno shared that he could closely relate to the graduates because he, like many Northeastern students, is a “proud immigrant” from Bogota, Colombia, and raised by his mother who taught him to always “look deeper.” He felt Northeastern did that with him during the interview process. He believed, if done right, El Centro could "leave an indelible mark in this city" and inspire those who've never thought of pursuing higher education to do so.
“I stand before you, humbly, as one of the biggest Latino architecture firms in the United States,” Moreno said. “You are my game-changer. Your El Centro is recognized as one of the 200 most important buildings in the history of Illinois. It is arguably one of the most award-winning higher education buildings that this state has ever seen, and it was always done for you.”
Moreno was recognized by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos as one of the “100 COLOMBIANOS” for 2013, and was a recipient of the 2013 “PIECE” Award for International Excellence, which recognizes Colombians working outside of the country and making a difference in the lives of children and communities.
Moreno also got deeply personal in his speech. He shared how, through his time in Chicago, he was able to reconnect with his father before he died and learn that he had a brother and sister, who were at the ceremony to celebrate with him, along with his wife—architect Laura Flores—and their children.
“Upon meeting Northeastern Illinois University in 2013, I always felt an attachment to you. You gave me the chance of a lifetime. I always felt I was going to be your friend forever, that I was going to be an ambassador to the University, an advocate for all the incredible things that you do. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would officially be family. Thank you for welcoming me into the NEIU family.”
Family and being an example to others through work and perseverance were themes of the ceremony. Board of Trustees Chair Jim Palos congratulated the graduating class, encouraged them to thank their family and friends, and charged them to go forth to lead by example.
“Make us proud as you have today, by the nobility of your character, by the lives you live,” Palos said.
Northeastern President Gloria J. Gibson acknowledged the difficult journey graduates took to earn their degrees and celebrated their perseverance.
“Some of you are the first in your family to earn a college degree,” Gibson said. “Some of you have worked two or three jobs on top of taking full course loads. Some of you have balanced work and home life with school work, not just of your own, but of your childrens’ or younger siblings’ school work as well. I’ve said this time and again—Northeastern students have boundless determination.” She continued, “I am confident that each 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 barriers you break next!”
The student speaker was Jodi Reuter, who earned her master’s degree in School Administration. Reuter is the principal of St. Catherine Laboure elementary school in Glenview, Illinois.
“During my time at NEIU, I was juggling a full-time job, my family, classes, papers, internships, oh, and let’s throw a pandemic in there too, while we’re at it,” Reuter said. She continued, “As students, you continually showed up and were a part of the greater purpose: to study and learn from the past, engage in the present, and to change the future. Now that, my fellow graduates, is perseverance!”
Gibson concluded the ceremony with an inspiring message to the new alumni.
“Use your knowledge and skills to make the world a better place,” Gibson said. “You have achieved your dream—now use it. And, as you climb the ladder of success, as I know you will, provide support and encouragement for others. Remember, your learning doesn’t end here. Stay committed to lifelong learning and make sure everyone knows you’re from Northeastern Illinois University!
Also at the ceremony:
- Jacqueline Vargas-Molina (B.S. Social Work) announced that the Class Gift scholarship fund collection has raised more than $1,962 so far this year.
- The processional and recessional were performed by the NEIU String Ensemble conducted by Daniel Chetel. The national anthem was performed by Erika Brown Thomas. The ceremony was interpreted for the deaf and hard of hearing by Charlotte Buehling and Meghan Taylor.
- The University recognized members of the Class of 1970, 1971 and 1972. Seven alumni from those classes celebrated the golden anniversary of their graduation from Northeastern and became part of the Golden Alumni Society. Each was presented with a special 50th anniversary medallion.
- NEIU Alumni Advisory Board Member Melanny Buitron 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.
Top photo: Juan Gabriel Moreno delivers his Commencement address to the graduates.