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Reflections of a ‘renaissance student’

When Sarah Liu introduced the keynote speaker at Commencement, she spoke of the ‘Northwestern spirit’

sarah liu
Sarah Liu. Photo by Alan Luntz
sarah liu
Sarah Liu with her parents. Photo by Jim Prisching

When graduating senior Sarah Liu learned she would introduce Gwynne Shotwell during Northwestern’s virtual Commencement ceremony on June 14, she arranged to speak with the keynote speaker in advance.

After just one conversation, Liu quickly realized they were so incredibly different and, yet, they had so much in common. 

Liu, a double major in economics and legal studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, will go on to work in the finance industry at Morgan Stanley in Chicago. During her four years on campus, she participated on the mock trial team, served as president of Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity and worked as a student consultant in the Chicago Field Studies Office. In a few years, she plans to continue her Northwestern experience as an MBA student in the deferred enrollment Kellogg Future Leaders Program.

She introduced 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.”

Liu spoke with Northwestern Now before Commencement about walking in Shotwell’s footsteps and what that spirit means to her.

What kind of student are you?

Coming to Northwestern four years ago, I believed that — no matter what I was learning — I could apply it to the field of my choice. The quarter system enables us to choose so many classes, and that structure is really so rewarding. For example, my engineering friends love to take classes in history or philosophy because they help improve their writing and critical thinking skills. I wanted to be a renaissance student, not constrained by a program or major, because I’m driven by this reverence for education and a belief that all learning serves our aspirations.

How would you describe the campus community?

Having come to the U.S. from China, I remember the challenges in childhood, learning a new language and trying to find my way. Like many immigrant stories, it was terrifying, coming to a new place, not knowing anyone and building myself up from the roots. My respect for my parents and my desire to sort of validate their sacrifices on my behalf have driven me to achieve more. And that led me to choose Northwestern and all of the opportunities here, a place where it seems everyone wants their peers to succeed and work together to capitalize on our collective talent. 

If you want to make a connection, you just go up to someone and say “hi.” This environment made me feel I belong, like this was home.

So, I just try to be as welcoming and helpful as possible to the students who come after me. I think seeing a smiling face on campus during midterms is huge. I love my work in Chicago Field Studies because I take students through their first internship, get them started down their own career path and then see how happy it makes them. 

Students helping other students, setting each other up for success, is parallel to how Gwynne Shotwell is setting us up for our futures through her involvement as an alum and trustee. And that spirit of giving back remains with us whether we’re still students or have become alumni. 

How will you leave your mark on the world? 

As I begin my career in finance, I’m interested in how we invest in our communities. One day, I’d like to start my own venture capital firm that focuses on minority-owned businesses, just to give people a chance. I know how difficult it can be on an uneven playing field, coming from an immigrant background, maybe facing social injustices. I want to help empower individuals who, on a daily basis, are always striving to find their own place in society. I want to advocate for them and tell them, “If you have a goal, you have a place wherever you want to be.”

Please welcome Gwynne Shotwell

Following is Sarah Liu’s complete introduction of Gwynne Shotwell during the Northwestern Commencement ceremony on June 14, 2021.

As we prepare to march back through the arch and leave Northwestern, we will discover that the world has changed drastically from when we first entered campus. We embark into a world that is on the cusp of overcoming an unprecedented global pandemic that has highlighted the need for bright and innovative minds that push society forward. A world that has not only revealed social injustices, but also the hope to empower one other to craft a more equal society. The past few years have taught us that we as a community have the power to overcome any adversity and that our greatest strength is found in one another.  

Our dedication to the foundation of a brighter future is bred from a culture built by the help of our families, professors, friends and the greater Northwestern community. They have helped us overcome individual differences to work together and collectively use our skills to benefit the world around us. With their help, we have learned that there is strength found in lifting one another up and it is thus up to us to empower one another, to collaborate, and to break through pre-existing barriers. It is up to us to build a future that is not constrained by existing blueprints. On behalf of the class of 2021, I thank you: family, friends, professors, and greater Northwestern community for providing the support systems that are formative of who we are today. Your support has allowed us to become future world leaders and trailblazers. We could not have done it without you. But, as we prepare to leave the Northwestern campus behind, we will not be alone in our efforts to establish a brighter future.

Today, we receive the support of another group: the Northwestern alumni. Our alumni family is characterized by its willingness to work with each other and lift one another up. Once thought of as abstract entities that cheered us from afar, we will find ourselves joining this family today and looking for ways to look back and lift up both students and fellow alumni alike.

I am incredibly honored to introduce a woman in our alumni family who embodies the Northwestern spirit — who challenges preconceived notions of what is possible to innovate a brighter future — a pioneer in aerospace technology: Gwynne Shotwell. A double alumna of the McCormick school of engineering, Gwynne has sat in our seats before, she has spent long nights in the libraries captivated by her coursework, met her first friends on campus when she moved into Bobb McCulloch, spent sunny days on the lakefill, and cheered on the wildcats at Ryan Field just as loud as we have. Now, she is the president and COO of SpaceX. When we march back through that arch, we do not march alone. Gwynne is not only leading the world in space exploration, but she is also leading our charge back out of the Arch and into the waiting world beyond. On this journey, we must remember to capitalize on the resilience that we have built and fortified in one another over the past year. Gwynne has seen our class’s ability to not only survive the adversities of a global pandemic, but also our ability to thrive and succeed despite these challenges.

Gwynne joined SpaceX as its seventh employee and her dedication and innovative spirit has helped the company grow with billions of dollars of contracts. Beyond the Forbes recognitions as among both the world’s most powerful women and America’s most notable self-made women, Gwynne has always been a people person and a people engineer at her core. Ever since her time in the winding halls of Tech, she has believed in the power of teamwork in fostering solutions, and that the best ideas are found within productive communication between all the voices in a room. Innovation is thus not only applicable to the technical products that she is working on, but it is applicable to processes and self-improvement as well. As an innovator, Gwynne has shared her commitment to consistently improve and make her own technologies obsolete in order to remain on the cutting edge of aerospace … and that mindset is exactly what drives society forward.

In a conversation with Gwynne, she shared with me her love and dedication to the future of this country. To making it a better place than that which we inherited. Her work both in aerospace and in making STEM an inclusive field to all voices are testaments of what she has done thus far. We as the class of 2021 come from over 70 countries and speak over 50 languages, but we are all united by our Northwestern experience. We owe it to wherever we go to innovate ways to better that community. To love our community. To love our future. And to dedicate the skills that Northwestern has endowed unto us to establishing a beautiful future-just as Gwynne has.

Please join me in giving a warm welcome to a fellow wildcat and the embodiment of the Northwestern spirit, Gwynne Shotwell.

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