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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

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.”