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Alum Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, will address the Class of 2021

Northwestern will hold a three-day celebration June 12-14 for graduates, mixing in-person and remote events for the classes of 2021 and 2020

Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, will deliver the Northwestern Commencement address to the Class of 2021 during the University’s June 14 virtual ceremony. 

Shotwell, a double Northwestern alumna, also will receive an honorary degree, along with ‘me too.’ movement founder Tarana J. Burke, renowned medical researcher Dr. Helen H. Hobbs and fellow alumnus George R.R. Martin, the best-selling author and creator of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

“The Class of 2021 should be incredibly proud of what they have accomplished, particularly in light of the many challenges they faced over this last year.” Shotwell said. “I am honored to deliver this year’s commencement address and I look forward to celebrating the graduates and getting them excited for the future.”

As president and COO of SpaceX, Shotwell is responsible for day-to-day operations and managing all customer and strategic relations to support company growth. She joined SpaceX in 2002 as vice president of business development and built the Falcon vehicle family manifest to more than 100 launches, representing more than $15 billion in business. She also is a member of the SpaceX board of directors.

“It’s a thrill to be able to welcome graduates from the Classes of 2020 and 2021 for a memorable weekend, one that will allow for as much traditional pomp and circumstance as possible while ensuring safety in accordance with the latest public health guidance,” said President Morton Schapiro. “I’m looking forward to seeing many of our students and their guests and family members in person for the first time in a long time, to honor their tremendous achievements. I’m also delighted that our distinguished alumna and trustee Gwynne Shotwell, one of the country’s most renowned leaders in business and innovation, will address the Class of 2021.”

Shotwell received her bachelor’s degree in 1986 and master’s degrees in 1988, with honors, from the McCormick School of Engineering. She currently serves as a member of the University’s Board of Trustees.

Through leadership in both corporate and external science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, she has helped raise millions of dollars for STEM programs reaching thousands of students nationwide.

Commencement celebrations

The University has also announced the winners of this year’s Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award (DSTA), who will be honored along with the honorary degree recipients at the Class of 2021 virtual Commencement ceremony June 14, part of the three-day celebration of the Classes of 2020 and 2021. This year’s DSTA recipients are Seth Brady; Carrie Marcantonio; Monica Rowley; Jeff Solin; and Mark Vondracek. The recipients teach in high schools across the country, including public schools in Illinois, Missouri and New York.

Class of 2021 events

Convocation ceremonies, hosted by each Northwestern school, will take place June 12, 13 and 14 at Ryan Field and the Ryan Fieldhouse. Members of the Class of 2021 will be able to walk across the stage as their name is read aloud. These events also will be live streamed for remote viewing. 

Class of 2020 events

A Class of 2020 graduation celebration will take place at 9 a.m. CT on Saturday, June 12, at Ryan Field and will be livestreamed. All graduates from the Class of 2020 have been invited to return to campus for this event, but, based on the results of a survey, the University expects attendance to remain below state capacity limits. As with Class of 2021 events, graduates’ names will be read as they cross the stage.

Learn more and get additional details as they become available by visiting the University’s official Commencement website.

Honorary degree recipients

Tarana J. Burke

For nearly three decades, activist and advocate Tarana J. Burke has worked at the intersection of racial justice, arts and culture, anti-violence and gender equity. Fueled by commitments to interrupt sexual violence and other systemic inequalities disproportionately impacting marginalized people, particularly Black women and girls, Burke has created, led and participated in various campaigns focused on increasing access to resources and support for impacted communities.

Tarana Burke
Tarana J. Burke

More than a decade before the #MeToo hashtag, Burke created the ‘me too.’ movement, which to date has galvanized millions of survivors and allies around the world. In October 2017, just days after The New York Times published an investigation of Harvey Weinstein, “me too” became a global rallying cry, catapulting Burke’s longtime work and mission to new heights.

In addition to her current role as executive director of the ‘me too.' organization, she launched #MeTooVoter to engage voters — and the 2020 presidential candidates — to make sexual assault a key issue in last year’s election.

A proud native of the Bronx, New York, Burke’s passion for community organizing began in the late 1980s. As a young girl, she joined a youth development organization called 21st Century. She launched initiatives around issues including racial discrimination, housing inequality and economic justice.

Her steadfast commitment to the cause has led to numerous accolades including 2017 TIME Person of the Year and the 2019 Sydney Peace Prize, among many other honors.

Helen H. Hobbs 

Dr. Helen H. Hobbs is an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a professor of internal medicine and molecular genetics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Helen H. Hobbs
Helen H. Hobbs

Together with Jonathan C. Cohen, she has identified new sequence variations/genes contributing to differences in plasma levels of LDL-cholesterol and triglyceride. These studies have provided new insights into the pathogenesis of coronary heart disease and led to the development of two new lipid-lowering therapies. 

Hobbs also has identified genetic differences contributing to susceptibility and resistance to fatty liver disease. Gene identification is just the starting point for her studies. She has performed functional studies to characterize the pathways and processes that are altered by the defective genes she identifies. 

She has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among the prizes she has received are the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Grand Prix Award from the Institute of France and the Harrington Prize for Innovation and Medicine. 

George R.R. Martin

Alumnus George R.R. Martin is an internationally acclaimed best-selling author and creator of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” one of the world’s most popular television shows.

George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin

Born to a working-class family in Bayonne, New Jersey, Martin began writing very young, selling monster stories to other neighborhood children for pennies, dramatic readings included. Later he became a comic book fan and collector in high school, and he began to write fiction for comic fan magazines. In 1970, at the age of 21, he made his first professional sale: “The Hero,” sold to Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, published in the February 1971 issue.

Also in 1970, he received a bachelor’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, graduating summa cum laude. He went on to complete a master’s degree from Medill in 1971.

Martin wrote part-time throughout the 1970s while working as a legal assistance volunteer, chess director and teacher. After moving to Hollywood, he signed on in 1986 as a story editor for Twilight Zone at CBS Television. In 1987, he became an executive story consultant for Beauty and the Beast at CBS before climbing to producer and then co-supervising producer. 

Today, Martin lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is a member of Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (he was South-Central Regional Director 1977-1979, and Vice President 1996-1998) and of Writers’ Guild of America, West. 

Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award

Each fall, President Schapiro invites graduating Northwestern undergraduate seniors to nominate high school teachers who have had a transforming impact on the lives of students. Winners of the award are invited to participate in Commencement exercises in June.

Read the complete story: Northwestern students honor high school teachers who helped them find their passion

Each teacher honored receives an award of $5,000. The winning teacher's high school also receives an award of $5,000. 

Seth Brady
Naperville Central High School
Naperville, Illinois

Mahie Gopalka continues to be in touch with Seth Brady as a source of “constant support,” long after leaving Naperville Central. Gopalka, now a senior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences who is preparing for a gap year and ultimately medical school, credits Brady with unlocking her passion for global health.

Carrie Marcantonio
Winnetonka High School
Kansas City, Missouri

Emanuella Evans remembers spending every lunch period of her freshman year in the office of Carrie Marcantonio, where she stored her Nutella and a loaf of bread. The two would eat lunch together. Later, when Evans first joined Winnetonka High School’s Key Club and then took Marcantonio’s research course, she said she felt empowered and learned to value mutual aid, service learning and community care.

Monica Rowley
Brooklyn Technical High School
Brooklyn, New York

Chloe Wong does not mince words when she refers to Monica Rowley as “the most phenomenal teacher” she has ever met. Wong was one of only 13 seniors to opt into Rowley’s AP Capstone Research course, which was a major part of Wong’s high school experience and initial ventures in academic research.

Jeff Solin
Lane Tech College Prep
Chicago, Illinois 

Lazar Gueorguiev first heard about Jeff Solin during his junior year at Lane Tech when older friends taking Solin’s “Innovation Creation Lab” course described the computer science teacher as a “hella chill” guy who played music during class, rode a mini board through the hallways, had smart lights installed throughout the classroom and had a student-painted mural that spanned the walls. When he inevitably took the class himself, it started with designing and printing his own laptop sticker — and ended with the class’s Chicago flag mosaic displayed at Navy Pier. 

Mark Vondracek
Evanston Township High School
Evanston, Illinois

Noah DeMar credits his decision to study mechanical engineering at Northwestern “in no small part” to his AP physics teacher, Mark Vondracek. DeMar said it was widely known that the teacher slept only a few hours a night — instead preparing lessons that went “far beyond the required curriculum.”

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