The graduation season may have wound down in New England, but Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun has embarked on a trip to Europe and the Middle East to deliver commencement speeches at three colleges: the American College of Thessaloniki, Greece (June 24); Bahcesehir University in Istanbul (June 28); and Holy Spirit University of Kaslik in Beirut (July 11). The Globe's higher education editor, Roy Greene, caught up with Aoun via e-mail and asked him to reflect on his trip.
Q. What are Northeastern's connections to the three universities?
Q. How does your background, growing up in Lebanon and living and learning on three continents, enrich your messages to these audiences?
A. I'll be speaking about this in my speeches. One of my messages to the graduating students is: Get out of your comfort zone. Embrace all that the world has to offer. My own personal journey allowed me to do this. At times it can cause anxiety, but it can also lead a life of tremendous fulfillment.
I am constantly telling Northeastern students the same thing. They need to be comfortable living and working around the world -- in Shanghai, Johannesburg or Sao Paulo. It's one of the reasons that we now have co-op and other experiential opportunities in more than 50 countries.
Q. Will you speak in Arabic?
A. I am considering delivering the final speech in Arabic, but haven't decided yet. After 30 years of living in the United States, I'm a little rusty.
Q. What role can American universities play in improving relations between the Muslim world and the United States, a theme highlighted by President Obama during his recent trip to Egypt?
A. My experience in the region tells me that all universities -- not just American universities -- can play a role in bridging some of the divides. Universities are committed to the discovery of knowledge. They are committed to dialogue and open discussion. They bring together people from disparate backgrounds, which leads to greater understanding of our differences. We need all of these things. Fortunately, as higher education continues to become more globalized, I think we will see universities play a greater role in facilitating these constructive conversations.
Q. You are a leading voice for improving the quality and reach of urban education. What lessons have you learned at Northeastern that might apply to the universities in Greece, Lebanon, or Turkey?
A. We are reaching a new tipping point in the world today. For the first time in human history, the number of people living in urban areas will exceed the number of people living in rural areas. This has many implications for us in terms of policy -- transportation, housing, public health. Universities have a vital role to play, whether they're in Boston or Beijing. Universities provide human and intellectual capital that help cities thrive. They are also tremendous economic engines. In the case of Boston, universities are part of the city's worldwide identity -- part of its brand. The key is for universities to see urban engagement as a central part of their mission, not a peripheral endeavor.
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