Campus, News

PREVIEW: Meet the 2021 Commencement ceremony speakers

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley celebrating her congressional victory in 2018.
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley celebrating her congressional victory Nov. 8, 2018. Pressley will deliver Boston University’s 148th Commencement Address Sunday to the class of 2021. OLIVIA FALCIGNO/ DFP FILE

By Olga Benacerraf and Jesús Marrero Suarez

Boston University President Robert Brown announced this years’ Commencement and Baccalaureate speakers on April 30 during a virtual rendition of the annual Senior Breakfast. 

The Sunday ceremony will feature Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, founder of Moderna Inc. Noubar Afeyan and Greater Boston Food Bank President Catherine D’Amato, all of whom will receive honorary degrees from BU.

BU spokesperson Colin Riley said the University is “very pleased” at this year’s Commencement speakers, as well as the opportunity to recognize each speaker for their achievements.

“They’re in the news, they are doing things that impact people’s lives,” he said. “We’ve seen that over the past year in each of them, in each of their roles.”

Afeyan will speak at the Advanced Degrees Commencement ceremony at 9:30 a.m., followed by D’Amato’s Baccalaureate Address at noon. Pressley will close out the headlining speeches with the University’s 148th Commencement Address at 2:00 p.m.

Born in Cincinnati and raised in Chicago, Pressley was raised by a single mother and a father who spent time in and out of jail, the Congressional website states

Her father’s relationship with the criminal justice system and her mother’s work in tenants’ rights activism influenced Pressley’s decision to enter public service, according to the website.

Pressley moved to Boston in 1992 to attend BU’s College of General Studies, but she withdrew two years later to support her mother. She continued her local activism, however: working for Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II and then alongside Senator John Kerry in various roles. 

Pressley made history in 2009 as the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council. Less than a decade later, she earned the same distinction when elected to the House of Representatives to represent Massachusetts’ seventh district, which includes BU’s campus. 

Alex Lynch, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said he is glad to hear Pressley will be giving the commencement speech, having been a longtime fan of hers.

“I think she’s a really awesome person so I’m pretty happy about the fact that she’s speaking,” he said.

Lynch said he is familiar with her work as a political science major and the vice president of BU College Democrats, and said he once met Pressley in the fall of 2019.

Afeyan was born in Beirut, Lebanon to Armenian parents. When civil war broke out in 1975, his family was forced to move to Montréal, Canada, where he graduated from McGill University with a degree in chemical engineering, according to his profile on Flagship Pioneering — a network of companies working to improve global health.

He completed his Ph.D. in biochemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1987, and now serves as a trustee for the University. 

His career as an inventor, entrepreneur and CEO led Afeyan to co-found and help build over 50 life science and technology start-ups, most notably Moderna, Inc. — the company responsible for the introduction of the first mRNA-1273 COVID-19 vaccine last year. 

Afeyan wrote in an email that his process for curating the address consists of combining ideas from his team with information collected from his own reading and writing to “puzzle through exactly what I want to say.”

He wrote that he urges the next generation to retain the “pioneering spirit” brought on by having to adapt to the hardships of the pandemic. 

“As you launch the next phase of your professional lives, I urge you to retain that pioneering spirit and continue to imagine bold new possibilities for yourself and for the world,” Afeyan wrote. “Pioneering —  risking hardship to tackle the unknown and unexplored — can serve as a roadmap for life.” 

Catherine D’Amato serves as the CEO and president of the Greater Boston Food Bank — a $100 million charitable organization distributing 82 million meals each year to 190 cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts.

A California native, D’Amato first became involved in the food industry at a young age by helping out in her father’s restaurant, which inspired her to work toward improving food insecurity, according to her speaker profile page

In the 1970s, she ran a food pantry system in San Francisco, eventually creating the San Francisco Food Bank to supply those pantries. Since she began leading the Greater Boston Food Bank in 1995 she has expanded the organization’s reach to more than 600 sites throughout eastern Massachusetts.

“She continues to work to end food insecurity with the belief that fresh, healthful foods can help move people from dependency to roles as thriving contributors,” the site reads.

Channing Capacchione, a senior in the College of Communication, called the chosen speakers “great and very timely” in an email.

“I’m excited to hear their different perspectives on the current state of the world and any advice they may have for graduates like myself, on Sunday,” she wrote.


One Comment

  1. Jonathan Krivine

    Indeed, a magical day. Both Ayanna Pressley and Noubar Afeyan were spell-binding with their unique personas and deeply moving in their message. Hats off to the BU administration for selecting these wonderful speakers. The class of 21 could not have had a better send off.