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McCormick Seniors, Graduate Students Celebrate 162nd Commencement

Dean Julio M. Ottino and guest alumni delivered remarks as part of a virtual celebration

Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering celebrated the graduation of its undergraduate Class of 2020 and its master’s and PhD students on June 19 as part of University’s 162nd Commencement.

Graduates from around the world watched a virtual Commencement ceremony, which included live-streamed remarks by Northwestern President Morton Schapiro. He told graduates, “Your final weeks here were not a time of celebration, but rather a time of crisis. The world needs your leadership more than ever, and I have confidence that you will rise to the occasion. Congratulations to all of you, I salute you, and am proud to help recognize your extraordinary accomplishments.”

The ceremony’s keynote address was delivered by Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot. In addressing recent events and social unrest, she encouraged graduates to leverage their skills and talent to serve their communities.

“Being a democracy means that what policy is and how that decision is made and what law gets passed depends on whether or not we’re part of the process,” she said. “It matters whether a diverse group of voices and experiences are at the table. If you’re not engaged, you’re absently yielding your power to someone else. So be at the table. Put yourself in the place where your voice and talent can be felt.” Read more about the University Commencement.

As part of the virtual celebration, graduates were each given a personalized website, which presented them with an acknowledgement of their academic achievements and links to the University’s event. For Northwestern Engineering graduates, that page also included links to video remarks from Dean Julio M. Ottino and guest alumni, and special materials to commemorate the students’ achievements with family and friends on social media. Graduates also participated in virtual celebrations via Zoom hosted by their home departments and programs.

In his address, Ottino told graduates that the current challenges facing the world had produced circumstances no one could have imagined.

Watch Dean Julio M. Ottino's message to graduates


“Despite the multitude of challenges that we face, it is critical that we carve out a moment to recognize and celebrate you,” Ottino said. “We applaud the perseverance and grit that we have seen from you and those who supported your journey. You have achieved something great – you are now part of the Northwestern Engineering alumni community.”

Ottino added that during such a time of change, challenges are expected, but challenges also present opportunities. He said it’s never been more important for graduates to use their engineering and design mindset to recognize problems and imagine new ways to make a difference.

“As whole-brain thinkers, this is our time,” Ottino added. “We must use our skills in building empathy, understanding user needs, identifying opportunities, pushing into the unknown, and advancing technology and knowledge to ensure that we drive change for the better.”

Alumni share advice and congratulations

More than a dozen Northwestern Engineering alumni who stand as leaders and innovators offered advice and well wishes via video.

Watch McCormick alumni share their advice with graduates


Ken Porrello (’78, KSM ’82), chair of the McCormick Advisory Council, welcomed graduates to an alumni community that he said has “the smarts, the tools, the grit, and the vision to change the world.

“We’re a community that leads, a community that innovates, a community that disrupts, and a community that breaks down barriers. I know that you will continue the proud tradition of Northwestern Engineering alumni,” Porrello said. “Your education has also helped you to build empathy, which is the ability to look at the world through the eyes of others. Never has that been more important than today.”

Milton Morris (’92, KSM ’04), CEO of Neuspera Medical Inc., urged graduates to leverage their friendships and memories as they plan for future opportunities. Like their academic careers, “life will be what you build of it.”

“After the virtual pomp and circumstance, after the celebrations have subsided, consider living a professional life at the intersection of things that you love to do and the things you are exceptionally good at doing,” Morris said. “Who knows? You might live the best version of yourself. You might make the greatest impact on society. You may even leave an indelible mark.”

Gwynne Shotwell (’86, MS ’88), president and COO of SpaceX, told graduates that despite the unusual circumstances surrounding this year’s celebration, they have reason to feel proud, as well as an important opportunity to self-reflect.

“I know that it’s a super weird time for you, but you should be pleased regardless of your accomplishments and your achievements and think hard about these times and how you react to adversity,” Shotwell said. “In fact, the way we behave and respond to adversity is really what defines us.”

Annette Rippert (’86, MMGT ’94), group chief executive of strategy and consulting at Accenture, noted that Northwestern Engineering graduates are uniquely prepared to tackle today’s challenges.

“Your engineering degree has given you everything that you’ll need. It has taught you how to think. It’s prepared you to take complex problems, break them down, and solve them,” Rippert said. “And just look around you, our world is full of tough, complex problems right now. Problems that are just waiting for you to find a solution. The world needs exactly what you have.”

Virginia Rometty (’79, hUniv ’15), executive chairman at IBM, closed with words of wisdom.

“The best advice I ever received came from my mother,” Rometty said. “She said, never let anyone or anything define who you are. Only you define who you are. Well, that’s never been more true than at this moment.”

Other alumni speakers included:

  • Deepak Ahuja (MS ’87), CFO, Verily Life Sciences
  • Peter Barris (’74), managing general partner, New Enterprise Associates
  • Sheila Gujrathi (’92, FSM ’96), cofounder and CEO, Gossamer Bio
  • Latonia Harris (MS ’97, PhD ’01) scientific director, Janssen R&D, Johnson & Johnson
  • Yie-Hsin Hung (’84), CEO, New York Life Investment Management
  • Mert Iseri (’11), CEO and cofounder, SwipeSense
  • Matt Levatich (MMM ’94), former president and CEO, Harley-Davidson
  • Steven McLaughlin (’85), dean and Southern Company Chair, Georgia Tech College of Engineering
  • David Sachs (’81), cofounder and senior adviser, Ares Management
  • Patricia Sparrell (MS ’82), chair, The Sage Colleges Board of Trustees
  • Matthew Tirrell (’73), dean and Founding Pritzker Director, Institute for Molecular Engineering, University of Chicago
  • Joseph Zadeh (’03), chief stakeholder officer, Airbnb

The University plans to invite all 2020 graduates back to campus to celebrate their accomplishments in June 2021. They will be recognized as a class throughout Commencement Weekend, including with a ceremony distinct from celebrations for the Class of 2021.