Skip to main content

Convocation 2024: ‘Go, Go, Go, and Human’

June 12, 2024
Mitchell Jackson: “What if human is not just who we are, but what we do?”

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Mitchell S. Jackson encouraged graduates to reflect on the meaning of “human” and use it as a verb during his 2024 convocation address at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy (SESP).

The word “human” is, of course, a noun. But Jackson drew on a favorite rhetorical device, using one part of speech as another, to make his larger point.

“What if we define “human” as people who engage in securing the welfare and dignity of others, in safekeeping values, freedom, justice, writ large?” asked Jackson, the John O. Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professor at Arizona State University. “What if human is not just who we are, but what we do?”

The ceremony for the Class of 2024, held on a cool sunny day along the sparkling shores of Lake Michigan at Ryan Fieldhouse, celebrated 126 undergraduates who earned a Bachelor of Science in Education and Social Policy, 116 students who earned master’s degrees from four programs, and seven newly minted PhD’s.

Related content:

In addition to Jackson, speakers included Dean Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, undergraduate Anna Smith who studied social policy and business institutions, and graduate student Angela Trusty of the Master’s in Learning and Organizational Change program.

Kyla Neely (l) and Yaurie Hwang

Graduating seniors Kyla Neely and Yaurie Hwang served as convocation co-chairs, and the winners of the Alumni Leadership Award and the Outstanding Faculty and Instructor awards were also named.

Brayboy, the Carlos Montezuma Professor, emphasized the power of listening, the folly of “being right,” and the benefits of building something together.

“Building requires persistence and a belief in whatever you’re creating,” he said. “Tearing things apart or simply walking away may be satisfying in the short term, but the long-term benefit of building is life changing.

“Doing right instead of being right is worth pursuing,” Brayboy added. “Try it. And keep trying it. We need you. Remember, we are all in this together.”

‘To human: that’s a verb'

Jackson, a celebrated cultural critic and speaker, reminded students that no matter what career they venture into, the most crucial­­—but likely unsaid—part of the job will be “to human.”

Over the last few decades, he’s learned that his greatest success stories aren't students who can recite a classic prose passage or poem; rather they’ve come from “facilitating a space for (students) to human towards wisdom,” he said. “A goal more possible, I’ve learned, via collaboration.”

Jackson, who teaches creative writing and is a columnist for Esquire, won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for his deeply affecting account of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. The piece, called “Twelve Minutes and a Life” and published in Runner’s World, also won a National Magazine Award in Feature Writing.

He is the author of several award-winning books, including The Residue Years and a memoir Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family.

“There was a time when I believed you needed gray hairs and wrinkles to be wise, that wisdom was almost always the strict domain of elders,” he said. “Now I know that we are just as apt if not more likely to find wisdom in our youth, to say nothing of them having the courage to live it.

“Celebrate your awesome achievement,” he urged. “Then go, go, go, and human. Human: the verb. Because we need you. We need you as much as we’ve needed anyone in any era.”

More highlights:

Jessie Wang
Jessie Wang

STUDENT LEADERS HONORED:  Graduating senior Avery Hirschfield and Jiaqi (Jessie) Wang, who is pursuing a master's in educational studies through the Teaching, Learning and Education Program, received the Outstanding Leadership Awards from the School of Education and Social Policy.

DOCTORAL ROBING CEREMONY: In a new School of Education and Social Policy tradition, seven new PhDs were honored and gifted regalia, including Xiao (Angel) Bohannon, Jennifer Cowhy, Claire Mackevicius, and Carolyn Swen (Human Development and Social Policy); Mario Guerra and Jessica Marshall (Learning Sciences); and Stephanie T. Jones, Learning Sciences +Computer Science.)

THANK YOU, MR. EMERICK: Graduating senior Emily Lester, of Lebanon, Missouri, successfully nominated her high school science teacher, Ryne Emerick, for the Morton Schapiro Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award, a program sponsored by the Office of the President, with significant support from the School of Education and Social Policy and Rebekah Stathakis, who chairs the selection committee. “Mr. Emerick’s teaching untraditional ways of learning and creating the conditions to learn from failure has impacted how I view my college experience and my work throughout SESP,” Lester wrote.

Claudia Haase

OUTSTANDING PROFESSOR: Claudia Haase, who teaches the popular undergraduate classes Adulthood and Aging and Emotional Mysteries,  won the Outstanding Professor Award. Haase, who also recently won the Ver Steeg Fellowship, is associate professor of human development and social policy. “In class, she validated the struggles of early adulthood when I needed it most,” one nominator wrote. “She clearly is passionate about her work, is highly knowledgeable about people and relationships, and is simply a good human being.” 

OUTSTANDING INSTRUCTOR: Lauren Tighe was voted the “Most Outstanding Instructor” in part for a new class she developed called Child and Family Policy, which includes a field trip to Bronzeville where students could see how policies play out in Chicago. “It was one of the most thoughtful, comprehensive, and well-planned out courses I have taken during my time here,” a nominator wrote.


  • Classes had ended, but Anna Smith gave herself – and her classmates – one final homework assignment to "find community in unlikely places, to cultivate and grow little examples of SESP everywhere." Smith added: "I am a believer that SESP has never been defined by what we do but what we do for others. This world desperately needs more communities like this.” Read her full remarks.
  • Angela Trusty, who earned her master’s in learning and organizational change, encouraged graduates to carry forward the lessons learned at SESP. “Embrace humanity as a core principle of our educational practices and policies,” said Trusty, who runs leadership, learning and coaching programs for a Toronto-based company. “And never lose sight of the power of learning to transform lives and empower individuals to reach their full potential – even if that transformation is just our own.”  Read her full remarks.

CASTING A SPELL: Neely and Hwang, the convocation co-chairs and emcees, capped the event with a reading of Radical Gratitude Spell which poet adrienne maree brown described as “a poem or a spell to cast upon meeting a stranger or friend working for social and environmental justice and liberation.” Neely wrapped up the ceremony adding: “Keep engaging with leadership as an everyday practice to create sustainable and just communities. And always honor our imaginations and dreams to practice world building. We hope to be constantly reminded of the #SESPLove and the community we’ve created.” 

Photos by Benjamin Breth