RELEASED: May 22, 2008
There is an African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. You have been raised by the love and support of faculty, staff, friends, family, and by the ultimate Centre parents, President and Susie Roush.
Parents in the audience, we are very proud of you also for creating such wonderfully talented students. About 22 years ago, I was sitting in a similar auditorium at the University of Richmond. I guess about 22 years and 9 months ago, you were being thought about to sit in the auditorium at Centre College. For those parents who are not with us, we know you are here in spirit. Some of you didn’t make it, but it’s important that if you’re not here, for whatever reason, that the other family members of this village filled in to ensure that those students were taken care of.
I had a chance to talk with many of you, as I said before, and I can’t wait to watch and be part of your journey, a wonderful journey. My road to science and math and exploration started with a chemistry set that literally sparked a strong interest in science when I mixed chemicals in my mother’s living room—and she can attest to that. I made this little mini-bomb. It was kind of cool. I’m not a pyromaniac or anything, but it was really cool to see this intense light glow due to these hands mixing two chemicals. And I have never forgotten that light, it’s always been a part of me. Thank goodness that back at that time, there were no age appropriate warnings on chemistry sets or I may have been competing with Tony Hawk for a skateboard championship instead of being a chemistry major. It’s important that we give you the tools; we are all here for you. You’re going to be the next leaders of this country.
Now, I want to know who’s going to be the first Centre astronaut walking on the moon, or maybe going to Mars? You’re in here, it’s just a matter if you want it badly enough, if you want to do it. [When a graduate raises his hand] Now who is that person back there, oh, there we go: You’re going to the moon. Look at you, you’re already in space, I can see it in your eyes.
My path to college was a dropped touchdown pass in the end zone during my high school homecoming game, which eventually dashed all my hopes for getting a scholarship to play at the University of Richmond. My high school coach truly believed in me—just as my parents, just as my friends—but he believed in me to the point where he looked me in my eyes and said, “Leland, get out there and go catch that ball.”
I dropped a touchdown in the end zone at a homecoming game; now you know how bad that is. All your friends are back from college; they’re like, “Yeah, there’s Leland, that’s my boy, yeah, you’re going to catch the ball,” and I dropped it in the end zone. I got a second chance because unbeknownst to me, there was a college scout walking out of the stadium after I dropped this touchdown pass. His name was Morgan Hout; he was my receiver coach at Richmond. And when he heard the crowd screaming for the second time (he was walking out), he stopped, turned around, and looked back, and saw me victoriously in the end zone holding up the ball.
Second chances are very important. It’s something that when you fail—and all of us will fail, you will fail in some way. It’s not about the failing; it’s about what you do after you fail. It’s about picking up the pieces, it’s about picking yourself up, it’s about believing in yourself after the failure. And the true character of an individual is what they do under pressure or during the difficult times. While at Richmond, there were major obstacles, major missteps that I took during my freshman year that could have quickly dashed my hopes of getting a college education. However, again, people believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and I got back on track and I majored in chemistry while playing football. That’s why it’s so important to make the correct decisions on your journey. One wrong step in the Himalayas can be tragic, and if you’re tethered to someone else, even more tragedy. Take intentional, deliberate steps. Have a vision, a plan, a route, even if it’s loose and unstructured. I’m telling you this when I just recently came up with my own five-year plan. Up until now, I had been serendipitously led by other people and I had bits of wisdom that were given to me to help me on my journey. The living room explosion created a passion for science, math, and exploration. Instructors and students continued to fuel my curiosity at Richmond, just like they have done for you at Centre.
Find your passion—it’s so important. Finding what’s inside of you that makes you go, “yeah,” and keep a childlike enthusiasm. Different processes work for different people, so my path may or may not work for you; Dr. Roush’s path may or may not work for you. Find your own way, do your own thing, one step at a time. Have a vision, not just for your career, but also for what you want to do with respect to your family, your friends, even your surroundings. How will you integrate yourself into the bigger picture? Your local community? Your planet? Think big—globally; no, think cosmically. As you walk along this path, don’t forget your travels should be done with integrity, honor, and respect for people (don’t forget the animals), and the earth. And with respect to the earth, you’ve done a lot already on to the Green Fund vote—good job on that, it shows a step in the right direction for helping to save our planet.
You’re part of a legacy here at Centre, a 189-year legacy. But create your own legacy, with your family and your community. Medical issues, budget cuts, and the Columbia accident all potentially were going to dash my dreams to go to space. On the night of the Columbia accident, I went to my friend David Brown’s home, and it was amazing what happened there.
I went there to console him, after the loss of his son in this most horrific way, and this is what he said to me: “Leland, my son just died in the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia. He is not coming back, and there is nothing that you can do to change this. However, the biggest tragedy would be if we don’t carry on the legacy of the Columbia crew by continuing to explore.”
On the night of his son’s death he was telling me to continue to explore or his life would have been lost in vain. To continue doing the work that David did to inspire the next generation of explorers ignited a spark in the eye of an inquisitive child. Dave’s father lit another spark in me, to make sure that I do my part to ensure that another tragedy, like Columbia would never happen, and to share everything I can, both the good and the bad experiences, with the next generation of explorers.
And that’s what you are, the next generation. Exploration. We are a nation, a civilization of explorers and any civilization that stops exploring shall perish. That is why it is paramount that we do what’s difficult, complex, and that which seems impossible. Your education at Centre is your entry card to mastering the difficult and seemingly impossible. Dream big, bold, vivid dreams and turn them into reality. With our renewed space vision, I was very blessed to have the opportunity to find space.
And I really appreciate all the love and support that I received from President and Susie Roush, who came to Florida not one time, but two times, to see the launch.
While in space, we worked hard to install the Columbus research laboratory under the space station, which had a truly international and diverse team. Russian, French, German, American, African-American, Asian-American, and the first female station commander. You do a lot of interdisciplinary work, you do a lot of international work here; your entry card to this global community is already started.
I wish I were a poet so that I could describe to you the beauty of our planet from 200 miles up above. Every 90 minutes we’d orbit our beautiful blue and brown and white and crimson globe. (I think there was some tangerine in there also—a little inside joke there.) The blackness of space, when the sunset is separated by this thin veil of atmosphere that has a multitude of shades of blue. And as the sun rises, it is infused with orange and white and all these colors that you just can’t describe. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, and it’s changed me in so many ways. Looking down on the planet from on high, there are no borders. It’s one planet, one people, one humanity and we have to ensure that we do, what you do as the future leaders, as the future scientists, as the future astronauts back over there, to make sure that our humanity stays intact.
In aviation we use the term “loss of attitude control” to describe an imminently bad situation about to happen to an airplane. Well in space, we use the term a different way. You can usually tell when there is a rookie astronaut floating around because usually they have a loss of attitude control—careening through the station, wiping out computers, wiping out people like a bull in a china shop; that was me a few times. But it’s very important that we maintain our attitude control.
I’d like to share with you a poem by Marianne Williamson that’s impacted me in a most significant way. It’s called “Our Deepest Fear,” and here it goes:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Two things before I close. Make sure that no one controls your attitude control except for you. Racism, sexism, all the isms, all the bad things that Rick [Axtell] talked about earlier [at the baccalaureate], you control it with yourself. No one can control you unless you allow them to. Take charge of your Low-AC. May the light inside you shine brightly so that others will follow your example, and may this light illuminate your path to success, peace, and happiness.
God bless the 2008 Centre College graduates, and may God be with you. Thank you.
Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
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