NPR reporter, Chobani CEO to deliver commencement speeches at Fenway Park


Paxtyn Merten

Every year, graduating Northeastern students hear from speakers, including fellow students, Northeastern alumni and other inspirational individuals, during their commencement ceremony.

Renée Abbott, news staff

Fenway Park will host thousands of students at the commencement ceremony May 13, as well as two notable speakers. Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of Fortune 500 company Chobani Yogurt will be delivering the commencement speech for undergraduate students and Northeastern alumna and NPR reporter Leila Fadel will deliver the commencement speech for graduate students. 

Fadel graduated from Northeastern in 2004 and has since won numerous awards, including the Goldziher Prize, for her NPR series “Muslims in America: A New Generation” in 2019 and the George Polk Award for her foreign reporting in 2007. Recently, Fadel has been reporting from Ukraine during the war against Russia, as well as co-hosting NPR’s daily news podcast “Up First.” 

“I especially love speaking to students, to graduates, to people who are thought leaders and are thinking about their future and the future of their communities,” Fadel told The News. “Usually I am speaking one on one with people or in a studio, so I’m really excited.”

Graduate student Sharmila Kuthunur, who is graduating with her Master’s degree in journalism, is excited to hear from someone who was once in her shoes as a Northeastern journalism student. 

“As a student reporter, it’s inspiring to see her do the kind of on scene [and] dangerous — but impactful — work in conflict zones, and I’m just curious to learn from what she has to say about her experiences, and what she has learned about conflict reporting and human nature,” Kuthunur said. 

Fadel said she was “humbled” when she was asked to deliver the speech. In the past month alone, Fadel has been in Ukraine reporting on the war and in Arizona to report on the impacts of Roe v. Wade on health care professionals. In her speech, she said she plans on touching on the way that fear can translate into motivation both in one’s personal life and career. 

“I’ve really been thinking a lot about the way we live in an age of fear unfortunately — fear of climate change disaster, a war breaking out in Europe that is threatening the global order, a divided nation in the United States that is frankly threatening American democracy, but I also think that fear is a great motivator and it’s the moments that I was most scared in my career that I found my own path to impact,” Fadel said. 

The speaker for the undergraduate ceremony, Hamdi Ulukaya, is no stranger to hard work; he immigrated to the United States from Turkey in 1994 and bought a yogurt plant in 2005 where he used family recipes to create the Chobani flavor enjoyed by millions today. He started selling yogurt in 2007 and now makes over $1 billion in sales annually. He is receiving an honorary doctorate from Northeastern. 

“It’s a big honor of course, I have not managed to graduate from college. I dropped out of college in Turkey to come here, it was a sudden thing,” Ulukaya told The News. “I sometimes joke about it. People tell me ‘you’re just a high school graduate’ and I say ‘don’t forget, I have a PhD, I have quite a bit of them’ so it brings me a smile. I wish my mother would see that I have so many diplomas now.” 

Ulukaya’s speech is “not a business speech,” and he instead hopes to convey the idea that everything in life is interconnected, and that life can take people on unexpected journeys. He said he admires Northeastern because of the university’s reputable international community and programs and admires graduating students for their passion and desire for change. Back in Turkey, he said he felt frustrated by the lack of change around him, and decided to start his own newspaper. He hopes that young people today are driven by the same spark, and same passion for change. 

“I think the similarities I see now with students that are graduating today is that they all have s*** load of things that bother the hell out of them and I think the main message that i have is stay with that uncomfort, stay with that anger, and that could become biggest source of power in life,” Ulukaya said. 

Fifth-year computer science and philosophy combined major Myraeka d’Leeuwen was surprised by the selection, but is excited to hear what he has to say. 

“I think it’s kind of funny, I guess I do think it’s a little bit random, but I suppose it’s probably difficult to get celebrities to speak at college graduations like the way that NYU [New York University] is having Taylor Swift,” d’Leeuwen said. “I’ve heard people say that he has a really good story too, which I personally don’t know anything about. Hopefully, he’ll have something exciting to share with us.” 

Ulukaya not only runs a yogurt empire, but he also works to give back and support refugees. In 2016, he founded the Tent Partnership for Refugees, which is a group of over 200 companies dedicated to helping and hiring refugees. He also signed the Giving Pledge, which is run by an organization that tasks the world’s biggest businesses with committing money and resources to philanthropic efforts. 

“I would imagine that that is kind of the path Northeastern is trying to take now with their speakers,” said graduating  fourth-year media and screen studies and communications combined major Sydney Lerner. “Bringing in people who are not just successful, but successful and have some kind of mission to help others, or help the planet. I do think that that’s an important thing to leave students as a final note, just thinking about how the things that they do affect others.”

The student speaker for the undergraduate ceremony is Adwoa Sefah, a fourth-year cell and molecular biology major. She will be moving on to the University of Illinois College of Medicine in the fall, and was selected to speak after applying and submitting a written and video speech. 

Graduate student Aniyah Smith will deliver the student speech at the graduate ceremony. Smith got her undergraduate degree in cosmetics and fragrance marketing from the New York Fashion Institute of Technology, and after placing second in the 2020 Husky Startup Challenge, she founded Push Beauty, a company dedicated to making makeup accessible to those with disabilities. She will graduate with a Master’s degree in business administration with concentrations in marketing and analytics from Northeastern on Friday. 

“It is quite a privilege to be able to go to an institution like Northeastern and leave with a  graduate degree of some kind, and I hope that they walk away thinking about what they can do with the skill set they have, and what they will do for the world,” Fadel said.