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Powell tells NU graduates world needs them

Says they should focus on what they love and do well

Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell received an honorary degree and gave the commencement address.
Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell received an honorary degree and gave the commencement address.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urged graduating Northeastern University students Friday to follow their passion in everything they do and to become active participants in a world that sorely needs their talents.

 The graduation season started Friday at TD Garden as Northeastern University’s class of 2012 had its commencement ceremony. Trixie Aguila blew a horn to celebrate with her fellow graduates.
The graduation season started Friday at TD Garden as Northeastern University’s class of 2012 had its commencement ceremony. Trixie Aguila blew a horn to celebrate with her fellow graduates.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“As each of you looks toward your future, always focus on finding that which you do well and that which you love doing,’’ Powell told nearly 3,200 new graduates at TD Garden. “Do something that gives you satisfaction every day and makes our society a better place.’’

The need to serve others has never been greater in this country, he said. “Money and position will or will not follow, but satisfaction will always be there.’’

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Northeastern’s ceremony kicked off the region’s robust monthlong commencement season.

Many students showed school pride by adorning their black caps and gowns with glittering red-and-white “2012,’’ “NU,’’ and “Huskies’’ signs. Others opted for lighter slogans like “Hire Me Please’’ and “Made It!’’

The top of one graduate’s mortarboard was covered with fluorescent yellow paper, edged with golden glitter, that read “Thank You Mom Dad - Alli.’’

Powell served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush. At the time, it was the highest post ever held by an African-American in the US government.

He was also the first African-American and youngest officer to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, under President Clinton.

In his commencement address, Powell pointed to his own career that started in Army ROTC while he was studying at the City College of New York.

“I didn’t have to become a general to find satisfaction in my career, nor was that ever promised to me,’’ he said. “I found satisfaction every day knowing I was trying to do my best and that I was serving my country.’’

Before his speech, Powell received an honorary doctorate for his work in public service, which includes founding the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service at City College of New York, and America’s Promise Alliance.

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Powell spoke broadly about politics, calling for compromise and consensus building in government, balancing the budget, and reducing carbon emissions, while encouraging graduates to be active and involved in political and public life on all levels.

“We can’t sit around waiting for Superman to come save the day,’’ he said. “We the people are the super men and super women. We are the deciders, so make yourself smart about the issues.

“Don’t fall for slogans and one-liners and Super PAC money,’’ said Powell, eliciting loud applause. “Don’t stand on the sidelines. Vote.’’

America is still an inspiration to those working to improve their own countries, said Powell, who was born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants before moving to the South Bronx.

“We’re still that wonderful place my parents found some 90 years ago when they came here . . . as long as we continue to enrich ourselves with new generations of leaders such as you,’’ he said. “We are counting on you.’’

Powell’s message of being involved and pursuing one’s dreams was echoed Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun.

“First, surround yourself with people who are ahead of you, people who challenge you and force you to think deeply,’’ Aoun told the graduates.

Aoun encouraged students to challenge themselves as well by facing their fears and taking chances that could change their lives. “In those moments, be bold,’’ he said. “Take risks even if it scares you.’’

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Johanna Kaiser can be reached at johanna.yourtown@gmail.com.