Graduates and Families Brave the Elements at Northwestern’s 160th Commencement

Overcast skies and cold, misty rain didn’t come close to dampening the spirits of the estimated 10,000 attendees who packed into Ryan Field for Northwestern’s 160th annual Commencement ceremony this past Friday. As a sea of cap, gown, and poncho-clad graduates filled the rows of seats on the football field, parents, families, and other loved ones enthusiastically cheered them on from the bleachers.

Students and families alike showed their appreciation for the five high school teachers receiving Northwestern’s Distinguished Secondary Teacher Award, as well as the four recipients of honorary doctorates from the university. Perhaps the biggest round of applause of the morning, though, came when Northwestern Alumni Association Board President Mark Ledogar skipped two pages of his prepared remarks in an effort to save time.

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The commencement address, delivered by world-famous soprano (and parent of a recent Northwestern graduate) Renėe Fleming, implored graduates to use their voices-- to make change in the world, to advocate for causes that they care about, and to enrich the lives of others. In her twenty-minute speech, Fleming combined savvy observations from her decades of experience as a performer with a smattering of well-delivered jokes, all accompanied by harmonizing vocals from a “Greek chorus” of Northwestern gospel singers.

Fleming, who is currently performing on Broadway in “Carousel,” emphasized that even after the hard work of earning their degrees, students still had a lot of growth and development yet to come. “Years of hard work and dedication have got you here,” she explained, “but you’re still developing your voice. You’ll need skill and stamina to maximize your talent, and when you finally have a stage-- and you’re going to-- people will listen.”

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The speech concluded with a look to the future, with three members of the graduating class appearing onstage to tell their fellow graduates how they plan to “use their voices” after graduation. Preston Choi said he would use his voice as a playwright to tell the untold stories of Asian-American history. Kasey Brown said she planned to use her voice as a queer black woman to tirelessly fight for the communities she represents. Claire Glubiak emphasized that she would use her voice only after first taking the time to actively listen to others.

The ceremony honored the more than 6,000 Northwestern students who earned graduate and undergraduate degrees this year. Students also received individual recognition at school-specific convocation ceremonies held throughout the weekend. For more photos of the ceremony, visit the Northwestern Commencement website!