fb-pixel Skip to main content

He strolled through campus in Ray-Bans, snapping selfies with students, high-fiving those with familiar faces. It was the first day of school at Northeastern University, and Joseph Aoun was doing his thing.

The university president, a whirlwind of energy, wasn’t just showing off on the first day, either. He does this all the time.

Some college leaders are pensive figures who are seldom seen on campus. Aoun is not one of them; he seems to feed off the interaction.

For an hour between meetings last week, Aoun whizzed around campus, spinning, selfie-ing, oscillating between the role of parent, friend, and celebrity.

Advertisement



“How often do you call your parents? Every day? FaceTime?” he asked one student. “What’s that you’re drinking?” he asked another. “Where did you do your co-op?” he continued.

At the State House, the young woman replied, with the governor.

“Should I call you governor now?” Aoun wanted to know. “I’ll call you governor.”

Then in a flash, he was gone.

Aoun, who has led the college for nine years, said he interacts with students so they will feel comfortable talking not only with him but with anyone on campus.

“You get to know what they’re interested in, what’s working for them, what’s not working for them, and they get to know you and then they feel like they can send you tweets, messages, et cetera,” he said. “And it’s fun.”

The president stopped on the sidewalk, on the crosswalk, and sometimes didn’t stop at all, opting for a walk-and-talk in French or Arabic. “Xiexie,” he said, Mandarin Chinese for thank-you.

“I was like dude, what are you doing? That’s so cool, though,” said Brian Alba, a junior from New Jersey and a rare student who said he hadn’t known what the president looked like until the in-person encounter.

Advertisement



For the most part, Aoun didn’t need to introduce himself. As he approached, most students smiled, straightened their posture, shook hands. One young man’s eyes widened, he whispered to his two friends, and they turned silently, watching Aoun roll past.

Many lifted their iPhones and snapped pictures.

“Oh my God, it’s so cute!” exclaimed Elena Beaulieu, 19, a sophomore from Los Altos, Calif., looking at a fresh selfie with Aoun. “I’m probably going to Insta that.”

Aoun came close to tightrope walking with three students who were demonstrating their balancing skills on a slackline strung between two trees outside Shillman Hall.

Graduate student Kervin Leonidas told Aoun he wrote a paper about the president’s good leadership and got an A.

“Want my job?” Aoun joked.

Aoun cajoled another student into exploring a booth offering financial planning services (“Let’s hear the pitch!”). Less than a minute later, he was playing cornhole.

“He does meetings this way, too,” said Michael Armini, the vice president for external affairs, who trailed Aoun but didn’t try to keep up. “He gets in the zone.”

Aoun walked around campus on the first day of classes.
Aoun walked around campus on the first day of classes.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.