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‘Try that risky thing — be a part of something exciting’

Alumna Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX urges Northwestern graduates to set goals and grow

A selection of images from graduation weekend 2021. Photo by Jim Prisching
Graduation weekend 2021. Photo by Jim Prisching
Graduation weekend 2021. Photo by Jim Prisching
Graduation weekend 2021. Photo by Jim Prisching
Graduation weekend 2021. Photo by Jim Prisching
Graduation weekend 2021. Photo by Jim Prisching
Graduation weekend 2021. Photo by Jim Prisching
Graduation weekend 2021. Photo by Jim Prisching

Northwestern University’s 163rd commencement ceremony — the conferring of degrees to all of this year’s graduates — was a jubilant and traditional celebration of the resilient Class of 2021, capping a busy hybrid weekend of in-person school convocations and many virtual special events with plenty of festive purple throughout.

Thousands of graduates, family members and friends from around the world watched Monday’s event via livestream, the second year the event was held virtually due to the global pandemic and safety concerns. Beautiful and moving music opened and closed the 75-minute Commencement ceremony honoring 5,973 students who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees. 

Related: Watch a highlight reel of the sights and sounds of graduation weekend

Graduating senior Sarah Liu introduced keynote speaker Gwynne Shotwell, a double alumna of the McCormick School of Engineering and a Northwestern trustee, as a pioneer in aerospace technology, a leader dedicated to improving the country and “a woman in our alumni family who embodies the Northwestern spirit.”

Better prepared for the new normal

In her wide-ranging remarks to the Class of 2021, Shotwell noted the significant and varied challenges that the graduates faced as they completed their education, and she assured them the resulting strength will serve them well.

“All graduations deserve a celebration, but you, this Class of 2021, have an even greater achievement,” said Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX. “You not only survived but succeeded throughout the insanity of 2020 and into this year. You were able to focus and invest in your future during a period of immense suffering. 

“Though many of the issues that we face going forward will be different, I think highly dynamic social, political and economic situations are the new normal,” she said, speaking from SpaceX headquarters, also known as the rocket factory. “And you are now better prepared to succeed in them — you have lived it, and not just survived, but succeeded. Feel good about that and carry that new skill with you.” 

Drawing from her own early experience of exploring and establishing a career, Shotwell encouraged the graduates to set and try to achieve “absolutely absurd” goals.

“When I was considering joining SpaceX back in 2002, I was struggling with the decision and drawing it out for weeks. It seemed so risky for me personally, to join this little startup in an industry where none had ever succeeded. At the time, I was a part-time single mother, and this was just too far out of my comfort zone. 

“I was driving on the freeway here in LA when it finally hit me — I was being a total idiot,” Shotwell remembered. “Who cares if I tried this job and either I failed or the company failed? What I recognized at that moment was that it was the trying part that was the most important. Try that risky thing — be a part of something exciting.”

She added that her years helping grow SpaceX from 10 people to nearly 10,000 taught her to work hard and be helpful and also to be kind and respect others.

“In short, the best way to find solutions to hard problems is to listen harder, not talk louder,” Shotwell said. “Embrace the ideas of your fellow workers, especially when they differ greatly from yours.”

The ceremony began with an energetic rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance” performed by musicians from the Class of 2021 followed by baritone Dario Amador-Lage, a graduating senior in the Bienen School of Music, singing the national anthem. The familiar pieces performed by students helped bring the scattered audience together and underscore the significance of the day.

Northwestern President Morton Schapiro welcomed the graduates and everyone in the virtual audience and acknowledged the graduates’ unusual circumstances while focusing on their achievements. 

“Graduates, your final year here wasn’t highlighted by some of the traditions that characterize the Northwestern experience in any ordinary year,” he said. “I’m saddened by that. But these are extraordinary times, and you are extraordinary people, with extraordinary gifts. And I believe you’ve been prepared by your teachers and mentors to offer the sort of leadership that our world needs more than ever.

“Congratulations to all of you,” Schapiro said. “I salute you. I am proud to recognize your extraordinary accomplishments. And I hope you will stay in close touch with your Northwestern family, especially as we come out from under the cloud of this pandemic.”

During the ceremony, President Schapiro specifically recognized first-generation graduates, the 50th reunion classes (classes of 1970 and 1971) and the 51 faculty members who are retiring after a combined 1,614 years of service.

The ceremony closed with an exquisite performance by the Bienen Contemporary Early Vocal Ensemble of the University Alma Mater.

Also this weekend, more than 800 members of the Class of 2020 returned to campus, along with their guests, for a special in-person ceremony held Saturday at Ryan Field. 

Land acknowledgement: ‘What a gift it is to be rooted in this land’

University Chaplain Kristen Glass Perez spoke of the history of the land upon which the Evanston campus sits, the traditional homelands of the people of the Council of Three Fires, the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Odawa as well as the Menominee, Miami and Ho-Chunk nations. It is the Northwestern community’s responsibility to share knowledge about Native peoples and the University’s history with them, she said.

“As we gather today for Northwestern University Commencement, what a gift it is to be rooted in this land, these peoples, these languages and these values even as we are called to be open to the ways that they challenge and teach us about what it means to be in community,” said Perez, executive director of Religious & Spiritual Life.

“There are times for endings and there are times for beginnings,” she said. “Now is one of those times. On this day of commencement, may we acknowledge and receive deeply the gift of the elders, friends, relatives and ancestors and honor their roles in our journey.”

Shotwell was among four people who received honorary degrees Monday. #MeToo 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,” also were recognized as distinguished leaders in the arts, sciences and public service. 

Each honoree, presented by a member of the Northwestern community, briefly addressed the Class of 2021 and thanked the University. Provost Kathleen Hagerty delivered the citations, and President Schapiro bestowed each honor.

For the 11th time, the president paid tribute to five high school teachers, including one from Evanston Township High School, who inspired graduating seniors and had a lasting impact on their lives. Each was honored with a Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award, which recognizes teachers from across the country who were nominated by members of the senior class.

To fellow grads: ‘Our existence, our being, is proof enough that we belong here’

Graduating senior Nolan Fizoires Robinson II, speaking on behalf of the Class of 2021, read a welcome a poem, reminding his fellow graduates of their worth in the world, and then also welcomed parents, faculty and esteemed guests.

“If the past few years have taught me anything, it’s that our existence, our being, is proof enough that we belong here, we are enough, and we are worthy,” Robinson went on to say. “This has been especially important for me, as a Black, low-income, first-generation college student, and all of my peers whose identities are often shut out, ignored, silenced and treated not as part of the whole, but cast out from it. You do not need to prove yourself to anyone, not even to yourself — every day you wake up is another day of purpose, and your breath, your dreams, your goals ... is all the proof you need to know that you are important.”

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