2001 Commencement Address
2001 Commencement Address Syracuse University, Syracuse New York May 13, 2001
Presented By Col. Eileen M. Collins, USAF, NASA ASTRONAUT
Chancellor Shaw, President Murphy, honored trustees, faculty and administrators, distinguished honorees, family and friends of the graduates . . .and, of course, most importantly of all, Syracuse University graduates and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry graduates of 2001-
I would feel honored to participate in these graduation ceremonies under any circumstances, but as a Syracuse “alum,” I am really thrilled to be here today!
I would like to extend a hearty “congratulations” to the graduates assembled before us.
Today is your day . . . and we’re all very proud of you! Earning a college degree represents a great achievement-the culmination of much hard work and commitment, energy and talent.
But to earn a degree from so internationally respected a university as Syracuse is something of which you may always be proud. I know I always have been.
Each of you has my deep respect and great admiration. And clearly, that respect and admiration is shared by everyone else here today- By the faculty and administrators of Syracuse University and SUNY ESF. And certainly, in a very special way, by your parents, family members and close friends.
And I’m sure some of those close friends are graduating with you, today. They are the friends who will always be an important part of the memories you hold for Syracuse University.
As friends here at Syracuse University, you have struggled together to pass economics and shared extra cups of coffee at the Schine Student Center debating about whether or not you did, in fact, pass economics!
As friends you have spent all-nighters in the art studio or in the chemistry lab.
Together you have fought over lingering copies of The Daily Orange . . . “car pooled” to Skaneateles Lake to pay your respects at the Annual Calculus Burial . . . probably, but only on rare occasions, skipped classes to play Frisbee on the Quad-
And awakened to the bells of Crouse College.
Together, you have made memories of Syracuse that will last a lifetime. Memories of Homecoming and Walnut Park, of the Marching Band and your favorite “R.A.” Memories of football games, campus concerts and the Hall of Languages at sunset.
Memories of star-fretted nights and snow crunching under your boots on the way to philosophy class . . . the social scene on Marshall Street.
Wherever I have gone in life, memories of Syracuse University have never been far behind.
Frankly, when I graduated from Syracuse, most of my classmates thought of the importance of their degree in terms of the job status and promotion potential that degree would provide.
I guess it is very natural for recent college graduates to place a lot of emphasis on their career in terms of the possibilities for advancement and, in particular, the correlation they might see between a promotion and a paycheck!
I see a lot of tasseled caps out there nodding in full agreement! Well, a good salary never hurts!
But I think, over time, you will find that even more important than the money you make, is how much you enjoy what you are doing and how well you conduct yourself while doing it.
For, whatever you do in life, it is important that you always maintain your integrity, find personal fulfillment in the way you spend your talents, and be respectful of the people with whom you work.
For me, space flight has been enormously exciting and rewarding, but I always knew . . . and aboard the Space Shuttle I was again reminded . . . of the value other people hold in my life. Of how significant to me are my family and friends.
Extended separations deepened my appreciation for those for whom I cared.
Personal success and achievement are certainly important in life. And you should pursue and enjoy accomplishment because there is great self-fulfillment-and sometimes great adventure-in challenging and developing the talents you have been given.
But I can tell you this . . . real satisfaction comes from the joys of family and friends. From watching family members depend upon each other in good times and bad.
Real happiness comes from friends who are loyal and caring . . . friends you admire, trust, and rely upon. Friends who, in turn, rely on you.
Like you, I count myself fortunate to have such friends. And like you, I met some of them on the Syracuse campus.
As far as I know, only a few Syracuse graduates have been launched into space-although, I understand from some of you graduates that occasionally one or two of your professors have threatened to add you to the waiting list!
Yet even in space, Syracuse University was very much with me.
Indeed, I would never have been able to pilot and command a space shuttle if it weren’t for the exceptional education I received here.
And I know that as the years pass, and space becomes more accessible to the general public, some of you in this audience will likewise have an opportunity for space travel.
For me, space was a unique and magical place.
Where else could I, in a matter of minutes, speed over the Straits of Gibraltar; the snow-capped summits of the Himalayas; the glittering, rose-colored atolls of Micronesia; or the sand dunes of Middle Eastern deserts.
From the space shuttle, I have seen beneath me, thunderclouds race across the continents and hurricanes mightily whirl across the oceans.
I have been dazzled by the tempestuous beauty of Earth’s lightning bolts exploding, like a glittering wildfire, against the infinite darkness of space.
And in that midnight blackness of space, I have felt a somewhat lonely, but intimate, connection to the shimmering lights of our world’s cities at night.
One of the questions I am most often asked is: “What most impressed you about being in space?”
Frankly, I had grown up to think of the world in terms of the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere . . . in terms of Europe, Asia and Africa.
In school, I had studied a world divided into many countries. My history teachers told me that some countries-like Canada and the United States-had been fortunate because they had developed in relative isolation from the problems of other countries.
I had been educated to know the world as a planet of many different nations.
But this is not the world I saw from space.
From space, there were no continents with the rigid stitchings of national boundaries.
From space, instead I saw the serene beauty of flowing landscapes, the brilliant radiance of sun-glinted lakes.
The world I saw from space had no divisions of people . . . no artificial separations of human interests and human needs.
All I saw was one fragile blue planet . . . a vulnerable homeland . . . its people . . . a family.
From space, this is the way the world appeared to me . . . a world of shared dreams and a world of shared destinies.
Then I realized that the opportunity to extend ourselves beyond this world allows us, in turn, to see ourselves-and our world-in a dramatically different way.
Journey beyond Earth . . . and Earth is transformed.
This journey of exploration had become, for me, one of rediscovery.
I thought of Thoreau who had written “Our voyaging is only great-circle sailing.”
And T. S. Eliot who had written:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
Suddenly, my journey into space resurrected for me memories of other journeys-journeys which, in a very real sense, inspired the journey I was on.
Journeys like those of the ancient Phoenicians who once lived along the narrow coastline between the Lebanon Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, yet explored and colonized faraway lands.
Journeys like that of Homer’s Odyssey, where a brave and resourceful hero discovered new life in places yet unvisited.
Journeys of rare faith and fortitude like that of the Mayflower pilgrims.
I thought of the journeys of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark . . . journeys along the Missouri River to the Mandan country of North Dakota . . . journeys into Montana and through the mountain passes of Idaho . . . journeys eventually to reach the Pacific Ocean and, ultimately, towards the discovery of a nation.
I thought of Huck Finn’s journey towards self-awareness and understanding-a journey undertaken by rafting down what Mark Twain had described as “the majestic, the revered magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun.”
According to one recent writer, throughout its history, “America was, more than anything, space.”
- Space, I might suggest, along which journeys could be taken . .
- Space upon which lives could be built . . .
- Space in which ideals could be pursued . . .
- Space where dreams could be achieved.
Where I work, there are a couple of popular buttons that we see over and over again-buttons clipped to a dress collar or improvising as a tie-tack.
With uncomplicated Yankee brevity, these buttons read: “I need my space” and “Mars or bust.”
Americans have always had an imaginative preoccupation with the idea of space.
And so, what was once “California or bust” is now “Mars or bust” as the restless, energetic spirit of a young and visionary nation reaches out.
And yes, it IS important what we derive from our journeys into space . . .
- Innovative technologies
- New industries
- Dynamic discoveries about Earth’s weather systems, terrain, and atmosphere
- Revolutionary materials that are impossible to produce on Earth
- New medicines
- Knowledge and understanding.
But it is also important what we bring to space. The history of human learning and values and aspirations. Our sense of justice. Our capacity for courage, honor and compassion. Our belief in enduring values and personal responsibility. Our affirmation of human dignity. And the ideals of faith, hope, valor, generosity and freedom.
Between the Earth’s surface and the beginning of space, is a tenuous veneer of life in which humanity came into being, civilizations evolved, and the timeless principles of Eternity were pursued.
Within this arched sliver of atmosphere, Aristotle sought to differentiate one branch of learning from another in relation to scientific knowledge; Plato’s passion for truth and the Good Life sought to restore the order of civilization through the love of wisdom.
Here Galileo discovered spots on the sun, mountains on the moon, the phases of Venus and the satellites of Jupiter. And Fleming’s discovery of penicillin continues to save the lives of millions.
Leonardo Da Vinci expressed the laws of light and space and painted The Last Supper. Michelangelo sculpted David and painted The Last Judgment, created a ceiling which became one of the most influential works in the history of art. And a deaf Beethoven composed the 9th Symphony.
Within this slender shading of life, Shakespeare captured the depth, diversity and abundance of life through protagonists who fulfill their heroic destiny.
Here the small and unassuming figure of Mother Teresa, clad in the traditional sari of India, extended her respect, understanding and love towards the “poorest of the poor” .
And here, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of the “world-wide neighborhood” in which “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly,” for “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Whatever we bring to space, what we bring to all of our journeys, is important. For the progress of humanity is not measured only, or even primarily, by the progress of technology. The progress of humanity, like the growth, education and flowering of the individual, is measured most by the progress of virtue and moral achievements.
Journeys into space will continue.
And to now empty worlds of clay and rocks, to worlds of fiery clouds and untamed winds, we will bring our courage, our faith, our determination, our energy, our excitement and our imagination. We will bring, I hope, too, unpremeditated moments of kindness and our unwavering sense of honor.
As we continue to explore space, I hope our journeys are accompanied by the same moral convictions and integrity which have always been intrinsic to the realization of our greatest achievements.
These values I hope accompany the journey you, too, are about to take.
My missions into space did not transform me.
But space flight did reinforce my belief in the essential goodness and wondrous possibilities of the human spirit.
This is the journey I wish for you.
To your journeys . . . “Godspeed.”