SESP Convocation 2020: A Time to Repair and Reimagine

SESP Convocation 2020: A Time to Repair and Reimagine

Annie White with Susan OlsonAntoinette White receives a visit from Susan Olson, assistant dean for student affairs and Dean Figlio.

There’s no going back to the world we once knew – and therein lies “enormous opportunity to make the world a better place,” School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) convocation speaker Sybil Madison told the Class of 2020 during the first virtual convocation celebration in Northwestern University history.

“You’re stepping out into a world that needs repair, but not repair that returns it to what it was,” said Madison, Chicago’s deputy mayor for education and human services and a former SESP research associate. “It needs repair that turns it into what it should be. You have an amazing opportunity to help us reimagine our policies, reinvent our schools, and to remake a more just and equitable world.”

Both invited convocation speakers – Madison and congresswoman Robin Kelly – acknowledged in pre-recorded speeches that today’s young adults shoulder a heavy burden as they head out into a strange new world. At the same time, they’ve been building a strong foundation over the last four years. 

SESP’s virtual convocation ceremonies featured an address from Dean David Figlio, student guest speakers Diana Roldan and Leo Rivera; the announcement of the Alumni Leadership Award winners Jordyn Ricard and Sarah Crawford; and special appearances from alumni and guests, including Northwestern football coach and alumnus Pat Fitzgerald (BS97); and Loeschner Leadership lecturers, including Tony Jack, assistant professor at Harvard Univeristy; Eve Ewing, assistant professor at the University of Chicago; and economist Mary Daly, president and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

The convocation videos (links below), which were shared with undergraduate and graduate students students through an individualized and commemorative web page, also included unconventional PhD hooding ceremonies, student voices, and a virtual scrapbook. Individual programs gathered for Zoom watch parties, toasts, and more.

Learning sciences professor Nichole Pinkard (PhD98) presented Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot with an honorary doctorate during Northwestern University’s 162nd commencement ceremony. In her University-wide commencement speech, Lightfoot stressed that democracy will fail “if we do not see the humanity in each other. 

“If you have a passion for education or building a healthy ecosystem for our youth, turn that passion into purpose, like Deputy Mayor Sybil Madison, who works to support young people,” Lightfoot said.

Sybil Madison headshotMadison (left) worked as a research associate at Northwestern for three years before joining Lightfoot’s team. She directed the Center for Excellence in Computer Science, a unique partnership between Chicago Public Schools, Apple, and Northwestern University designed to increase the equitable availability of computer science learning opportunities to Chicago stydents.

Madison recently helped launched Chicago’s My CHI. My Future. (MCMF) initiative, which provides young people with a central place to explore hundreds of local digital programs and content. Northwestern is an integral partner of the program. Pinkard created the infrastructure by designing a versatile platform for in-school, out-of-school, and online learning.

“Graduates, we need you now more than ever because you're fresh; new eyes and ideas will help us avoid returning to business as usual, and push us toward a new normal that centers those who were unjustifiably disadvantaged before COVID-19 ever entered the scene,” Madison said. “Hold on to this unconventional graduation as a rite of passage into a world that you will help to remake.” 

Kelly, who was elected to serve the 2nd Congressional District in 2013, is known for her work championing initiatives to generate job growth, reduce health disparities, and end gun violence in Illinois. She told graduates that while graduating during a global pandemic might seem ominous, their timing was actually perfect.

“We know that our policies have failed us and must be replaced with new ones – ones that completely reshape our healthcare, the workplace, our classrooms, and our criminal justice system for the better,” Kelly said. “It's your new and innovative ideas that will transform our nation and the world while building a future brighter than anyone in my generation would have imagined,” she said.

Dean Figlio hits the road

Diana Roldon with FiglioIn what may be a first for a Northwestern University Dean, Figlio visited as many Chicago-area graduates as he could for a physically-distanced graduation photo. He made nearly 40 stops in two days, visiting Evanston, Chicago, Orland Park, Lake Zurich, and several towns in between. He has pledged to take his act on the road when it’s safe to do so.

During his convocation remarks, Figlio noted how the pandemic has shined a light on the fundamental inequalities in American society that he and his colleagues have devoted their professional lives to documenting and combating.

“But the unequal effects of this pandemic for low-income Americans, especially Black and brown Americans, have been even more extreme than many scholars expected,” he said.

“We are faced with the challenge to lift up communities hardest hit by this pandemic, to call out and heal the wounds caused by anti-Blackness, to work with schools to address the needs of students displaced from the classroom, and to change the way we operate within our own organizations,” he said. “Change is undoubtably on its way. It will continue to happen. But it’s only possible through you, with you, and alongside others.”

The student speeches highlighted the strong supportive role of SESP’s undergraduate advisers. Led by Susan Olson, assistant dean of student affairs, the team includes Caitlin Burnett (MS14), senior academic adviser; Nathan Frideres, senior practicum adviser and coordinator of the Civic Engagement Certificate Program; Shelena Johnson, senior academic adviser; Meg Kreuser, manager of teacher certification and licensure and academic adviser; Ken Powers, senior academic adviser; and Jasmine Tucker, program coordinator.

SESP’s undergraduate students pursue one of five academic concentrations:  Human Development in ContextLearning and Organizational ChangeLearning SciencesSecondary Teaching or Social Policy.

“It’s safe to say that we’ve had our fair share of challenges,” said Roldan, a learning sciences major. “But In SESP, we are change makers. We use our knowledge and affinity for connection to improve lives. If anyone is equipped to build up our communities, find solutions, and make something good of our situation right now, it’s us.

“Whether that be through educating those who need it most, rebuilding organizations, or creating guides for public engagement, the SESP graduating class of 2020 is ready for it,” she added. Think of time now as a permission slip to be creative, to innovate, and to be the great change makers we know we can be.”

For Rivera, SESP has been a special place because of the “equitable and justice-oriented education” he received from professors. He also cited his experience student teaching at Evanston Township High School, guided by Rebekah Stathakis (BS02) who teaches in SESP’s master’s in education program.

“Not only did she help construct my equitable vision of education, Rebekah made me excited to be a lifelong learner,” Rivera said. “Effective educators give a lot more than just lectures and assignments, they gave you the tools and inspiration to think critically about the world around us, and that’s exactly what SESP did for me.” 

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 6/26/20