Astronaut and engineer Stephanie Wilson asks the graduates to mentor those who are follow them.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — College graduates are frequently sent off with a charge of doing their best and making the world a better place. But on Saturday, they were also reminded to reach behind them to help others along the path.
Stephanie Wilson, a member of a select group of humans who have rocketed into space, told the graduating class of 2018 at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts that she hoped that her generation has done its job correctly serving as mentors to their generation.
"Hopefully, we have taught you how to establish a support network, which advice to heed and which advice to discard," said the astronaut and aeronautical engineer, formerly of Pittsfield. "Hopefully, we have taught you to be steadfast and unmoveable in your hopes and your dreams and, hopefully, we have taught you that mentoring is instrumental in obtaining career success."
Wilson was presented an honorary doctor of science at MCLA's 119th commencement ceremonies. Nearly 700 students were awarded bachelor or master's degrees or certificates during the event in the Amsler Campus Center.
The Taconic High School graduate called back to her Berkshire roots, speculating that the Arnold brothers of printworks fame no doubt had mentors. So, too, did Pittsfield's Gordon McKay, the self-taught engineer who revolutionized shoemaking. And Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who may have been peer mentors, and every musician who's played on the Tanglewood stage.
Wilson's path toward the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was in part prompted by astronomist Jay Pasachoff of Williams College, whom she interviewed for a career exploration assignment while at Crosby Junior High. Her time at Taconic sparked her interest in design and how devices work, which she continued through her years studying engineering at Harvard, the University of Texas at Austin and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
She has been a mission specialist on three shuttle missions, spending 43 days in space and is the second African-American woman to go into space. As a branch chief, she helped to select the last three classes of new astronauts and now supports the International Space Station Program as a member of the Mission Support Crew branch. Her accomplishments, read out by President James Birge, lead to thunderous applause in the campus center and a standing ovation.
Wilson told the gathering that it was important to find a career that "captures your heart as well as your mind" as she had.
"From your experiences here at MCLA, your chosen field of study whether it be athletic training, chemistry, English, performing arts, philosophy or physics-related, you have found something that fascinates you," Wilson said. "Congratulations, for you have successfully navigated the first step in choosing your career: to chose something that captures your heart, as well as your mind — for both your heart and your mind must be challenged and engaged."
She encouraged the graduates to think broadly to gain the most skills before narrowing down their specialties. And to consider how their work can make their community, their country, and their world better places. She described how beautiful the Earth had looked from 200 miles up.
"From that vantage point, Earth is very serene and peaceful, unified and harmonious," she said. "It appears without complication or division. ...
"Even now I must contend my generation has left your generation problems to solve ... we know that you are up to the challenge.
"While you forge a path to your destiny, remember to take the time to reach back and bring someone along with you. Check that the path you have forged remains worn and attemptable by others so that the next generation may follow you."
The college also awarded honorary doctor of public service degrees to Denise Richardello, a 1977 graduate of the college and its retiring executive vice president, and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, a longtime supporter of the college and who, Birge joked, was the second astronaut on the stage that day, having famously sat for Norman Rockwell's "When I Am an Astronaut" at age 9.
More bittersweet was the honorary doctor of public service degree presented posthumously to state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi of North Adams, who died just a year ago.
"She was always willing to accomplish the important tasks that others were unwilling to tackle," Birge said. "Quiet, yet extremely effective, she established herself as an influential force as she worked the halls of the State House on behalf of those she served."
State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, accepted the degree on her behalf. Also on stage were the rest of the Berkshire delegation: state Rep. Tricia Farely-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.
The procession was accompanied by umbrellas this year as students and faculty dodged raindrops as they followed the Berkshire Highlanders to the campus center. Faculty Marshal Christine Condaris called the commencement to order and Birge noted this year's retirements and Golden Graduates. Julie Castagna, Joslyn Eddy and Alex Sasso sang the annual rendition of "America the Beautiful" and Trustees Chairwoman Susan Gold and J.D. Chesloff presented the honorary degrees. Professor Graziana Ramsden announced the candidates and Vice President Cynthia Brown presented their degrees.
The president of the class of 2018, Shannon Esposito, described the liberal arts education the graduates received as a "hands-on" education. "Never once in our career did we ever just mindlessly listen to what we were being taught," she said, but put their learning to use through research, internships and activities.
"Do not waste that talent," Esposito, of Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., said. "Don't settle for anything less than what your talent deserves. Use your talent to make some noise. Be a force to be reckoned with."
President James Birge congratulates a graduate on Saturday.
John Gable of Cheshire, who was receiving his master of business administration, recalled how his "compromise" of whether to get chickens or bees ended up with both, was a moment of stepping outside of his particular comfort zone.
"It's always good to try something new," said the longtime Berkshire Medical Center radiology technologist. He found himself in a new position and felt the need to improve his education. He thanked colleagues and professors for helping him along the way. "As you move on to your next chapter in life, I challenge you to find your chickens and bees. Go outside your comfort zone, break through your fears, challenge yourself, take risks and experience new adventures."
Birge said there was a pressing need in the world today for "thoughtful, intelligent and creative people" and urged the graduates to use their skills "so that we all have a better life."
"The world and our communities are calling for more MCLA graduates to ameliorate the conditions that have become so oppressive and so dangerous for so many," he told them. "Use your education, your knowledge to create change while bringing more kindness into the world."
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