Looking dignified in black gowns and mortar boards, graduates of NLU’s National College of Education streamed into Chicago’s Arie Crown Theater on June 12 under a marquee which read, “National Louis University 130th Annual Commencement Ceremony.” Most had big smiles on their faces, and several had carefully decorated the tops of their mortar boards with elaborate designs.
Hundreds of students, who had earned doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s degrees in education, marched in the processional.
NLU President Nivine Megahed welcomed the graduates and their families, and Board Chairman Scott C. Smith introduced the commencement speaker, author and educational leader Mawi Asgedom.
Born in Ethiopia, Mawi and his family found themselves living in a refugee camp when he was a young child, and they arrived in the U.S. just in time for him to start first grade.
“I had the opportunity as a low-income kid to walk into a public school and get an education from professionals like yourselves,” he said to the audience of graduates, made up of teachers, school psychologists, reading specialists, educational administrators and other educators.
He encouraged them to remember that the purpose of education is to free people to have lives without limitation.
Asgedom recounted how he had to advocate for himself to take more challenging classes in high school because his parents barely spoke English and couldn’t advocate for him. That more-challenging track resulted in his eventually attending Harvard University on a scholarship.
Years later, when his younger brother was beating him badly at video games, a frustrated Asgedom asked him why he couldn’t get a win. His brother revealed a little trick Asgedom hadn’t known about: he was pressing a turbo button, which gave him extra power. Asgedom compared his self-advocacy in school to hitting a turbo button.
“Always, always, always hit that turbo button,” he exhorted. “Ask, how can I hit my turbo button and make a difference at this school…with this kid…with this parent. How can I hit my turbo button and give back to those around me? As turbo educators, you will go on to amaze yourself and others with your impact.”
Student speaker Shajaira Lopez, who was being awarded her Ed.D. that day, kept up Asgelom’s high energy and enthusiasm for the power of education.
“I want to challenge you to become a leader in education, not just an educator,” she said, emphasizing that leadership requires the ability to put students’ needs before one’s own. Though she had worked as a teacher and school administrator before starting at NLU in 2010, she said NLU faculty showed her that leading a school is not only doing the right thing at the right time, but also being aware–of strengths and weaknesses, and of the impact words and actions have on others.
“Who would have thought educational leadership is not just about managing policies and procedures, but also about managing emotions?” she asked. “I learned how to be in tune with those around me, how to manage relationships, how to be mindful, compassionate and hopeful.”
One faculty member who stood out for teaching students such as Lopez is Mark Newman, Ed.D., whom students voted to be the recipient of the 2016 Distinguished Faculty Award.
“In every single class I’ve ever had, complete strangers became friends and formed bonds of community,” Newman said as he accepted the award. “It’s been an honor they have welcomed me to their community.”
Officials presented students with their diplomas, and gave each student a red carnation as they walked across the stage in memory of Elizabeth Harrison, who founded NLU in 1886 and enjoyed red carnations. There were 512 National College of Education graduates who walked in the ceremony, and later in the day, 510 attended NLU’s College of Professional Studies and Advancement commencement. A total of 1,671 NLU students in both colleges graduated this year.
Whoops of joy were heard as the grads recessed. They gathered in the lobby, where a live band played and parents and friends offered their congratulations and snapped photos to record the proud moment.