2019 Convocation:  ‘How You Gonna Win If You Ain’t Right Within?’

2019 Convocation:  ‘How You Gonna Win If You Ain’t Right Within?’

graduatesWith inspiration from singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill, Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) dean David Figlio urged graduates to learn from their mistakes and keep cultivating better versions of themselves.

Speaking at the school’s convocation, Figlio recounted a period of his life when he was experiencing great joy — but also sadness — professionally and personally. It was 1998, and Hill had just released her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Hill’s lyrics especially resonated with Figlio because they often reflected the tough decisions people must make when balancing practicality with purpose, he said.

And one particular lyric, 'How you gonna win if you ain't one within' represented a broader theme: to keep learning, keep growing,  and working to be our best selves.

“I made a commitment to put my eyes less on the prize and more on the present,” Figlio said. “Rather than trying to be the perfect father, husband, researcher — everything — I realized it would be much better to think about the general direction I wanted and try every day to move that way a little bit more.”

For the 156 undergraduate and 110 graduate students receiving degrees on a cool and sunny Friday in June at Northwestern’s Cahn Auditorium, the dean’s message built on a theme they’ve been hearing since they first set foot in Annenberg Hall, SESP’s home base on campus: the world needs you to help make it a better place.

The convocation featured several keynote speakers who reinforced the urgency of making a difference, including Arne Duncan, former US secretary of education under President Barack Obama, and Shirley Welsh Ryan, a 2019 recipient of an honorary degree from Northwestern, an accolade reserved for distinguished leaders in the arts, sciences, business, and philanthropy.

With each undergraduate earning a bachelor of science in one of five areas — learning sciences,  human development and psychological serviceslearning and organizational change, secondary teaching, or social policy — SESP prepares students for creating change and taking on leadership roles.

At the graduate level, students earn SESP master’s degrees in education, higher education administration and policy, and learning and organizational change; doctorates in learning sciences and human development and social policy; and a joint PhD in learning sciences and computer science, the first of its type in the nation.

Figlio, who sang a few of Hill’s lyrics — but quickly reassured the crowd he wouldn’t quit his day job — emphasized that both personal and institutional change requires baby steps. You might not necessarily see progress every day, he said, but every day you can make progress.

“We are a family of change agents,” he said. “I don’t know how you’ll change lives for the better, but I know you will. Find your inner compass and follow it day by day.”

Duncan: ‘We Need Your Leadership’

Duncan, the former chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools and now managing partner of the social impact organization Emerson Collective, didn’t mince words in his address to the newest holders of SESP bachelor’s degrees.  

He expressed concern over the state of democracy and lack of civic engagement in the United States, called for the K–12 educational system to be overhauled and transformed into a “pre-K to 14” model, and urged graduates to lead with their hearts as well as with their heads.

“If you’re a teacher, visit your students’ homes,” he said. “If you’re doing research, spend time in the communities that you’re researching. And if you can combine humility and empathy with a huge sense of urgency to challenge the way things are, that makes me wildly hopeful about where we can go.”

Education, Duncan said, is the antidote to poverty and violence. By providing good education to everyone, the nation can move away from what Duncan called the “caste system” that divides Americans by educational opportunities.

“We need you to be successful,” Duncan told the undergraduates. “Our communities need you. Our nation needs you. I’m so thankful you’re entering the world of this work. I’m inspired. I’m hopeful. But we need your leadership.”

Everyone has a gift

Ryan, a Northwestern alumna and self-described “quiet civil righter,” emphasized the role of kindness in leadership and reminded students of their responsibility toward others.

“Each person has a gift to give us, everyone,” she said. “And you have been educated — at the highest level our country has to offer — to learn and to teach others how to find the ‘ah-ha’ moment in a person, institution or body, and a policy.”

Ryan has long championed the inclusion of people who have visible differences and those with sensory, sight, and communication differences.

Her third and youngest son, Corbett, was born with cerebral palsy. Ryan educated herself and others about his condition and became nationally recognized for her work supporting early detection and intervention for infants’ motor, sensory, and communication development to optimize their physical development.

Since 1985, as chair and cofounder with her husband, Patrick G. Ryan, Ryan has led Pathways.org’s clinic, the first pediatric multidisciplinary facility on Chicago’s North Shore. Pathways.org is now part of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, ranked the top US rehabilitation hospital for the past 28 years.

Today Corbett Ryan is an Eagle Scout, the highest rank attainable for members of Boy Scouts of America. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame. Ryan’s other two sons, Pat (’97 JD, MBA) and Rob (’00,JD, MBA), are Northwestern alumni. 

“When we show the gifts of people that we think are different, we really realize that we all have gifts,” said Ryan, who, along with her husband, holds Northwestern’s highest alumni honor, the Alumni Medal. “Keep learning, keep your mind open. Kindness is the greatest thing you will have. You are empowered to change the world and the power is with you.”

Honors and awards

Outstanding SESP students and faculty were recognized at the Convocation and earlier in the week. Honorees included the following:

Alexandra Adamis won the highest GPA award. She graduated with a concentration in human development and psychological services, minors in psychology and French, and a certificate in leadership. She is joining global information and measurement company Nielsen as an associate in the HR Emerging Leaders Program.

Liza Jager, who helped found the student leadership board of the Master’s in Learning and Organizational Change program, won SESP’s graduate Alumni Leadership Award. “Liza is that person who uses her creativity and energy to bring ideas to life for the betterment of others in every arena she touches,” said Terri Cramer, former assistant director of MSLOC student affairs, who worked with Jager on a variety of projects.

lucas philipsLucas Philips, founder and chief growth officer of BrewBike, a campus-based specialty coffee business that launched in 2016, received the SESP’s undergraduate Alumni Leadership Award. For Phillips, who studied learning and organizational change and earned a certificate in entrepreneurship, leadership has been a journey of self-discovery, trial and error, and continual improvement. “Lucas has left Northwestern and SESP a better place,” said Melissa Kaufman, executive director of The Garage, Northwestern’s startup incubator. “He has inspired countless students to dream big and to embrace their own ideas.”

Undergraduates voted David Rapp, professor of learning sciences, as the Outstanding Faculty Member. Mindy Douthit received the Outstanding Instructor Award for the second time in three years. Other two-time outstanding faculty awardees included Lilah Shapiro (2015, 2018), Cindy Conlon (2007, 2017), and Jeannette Colyvas (2010, 2017). See the full list of Outstanding Faculty and Instructor Awards.

SESP honors recipients — seniors who successfully complete SESP’s honors thesis program — included Miriam Barnicle, Eliza Beth, Samantha Buresch, Ruth Charendoff, Cecilia Clarke, Isaac Doppenberg, Alana Farkas, Bianca McKenna, Emma Meyerhoff, Samantha Oberman, Talia Prusky, Sara Saltzer, Jamilah Silver, Hannah Whitehouse, Laura Zajac, and Carlyn Zuckert.

In her Convocation speech, Meredith Mackey, a former theater major who plans a career in television, explained why transferring to SESP was the right move for her. “SESP is about so much more than education or social policy,” she said. “If you’re looking to enact change, it doesn’t have to be as a teacher, principal, social worker, or psychologist. It could be in a boardroom, an operating room, or a writer’s room. SESP embraces the breadth of the interests of students. What we learned in SESP transcended the skills to be a good career counselor or nonprofit COO. We were taught how to be impactful change makers, benevolent leaders, and, most importantly, good people.” Read her entire speech.

Jamilah Silver and Meredith Falk served as Convocation cochairs.

Sherry Vernon, who received her master’s in higher education administration and policy, opened and closed the graduate ceremony, reminding her colleagues about the “challenges, late nights, and hurdles that turned out to be secret blessings because they inspired us to change our courses or try something new.” She noted two common threads she saw in her peers: passion and curiosity. “When I look at you,” she said, scanning the audience, “I see the future of education, public policy, and social justice at Northwestern and beyond.” 

See our full list of SESP Award winners.

Photos by Steve Drey



By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 6/28/19