Former Astronaut Bernard Harris Tells the WPI Class of 2015 they are 'Infinite Beings with Infinite Possibilities'

WPI Awards Nearly 1,700 Degrees and Presents Honorary Doctorates to Harris, Ellen Dunlap, President of the American Antiquarian Society, and Judith Nitsch '75
May 16, 2015

The largest graduating class in WPI's history, 1,680 students, received their degrees beneath a large, billowing tent that shielded graduates and well-wishers from the sun that occasionally peaked from behind generally cloudy skies. In all, the Institute awarded 956 bachelor's degrees, 682 master's degrees, and 42 PhDs during its 147th Commencement exercises.

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The Class of 2015 heard from Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr., former astronaut and founder and president of the Harris Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to "empower individuals, in particular minorities and others who are economically and/or socially disadvantaged, to recognize their potential and pursue their dreams."

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Harris recalled how as a child he was inspired by Star Trek and the Apollo 11 Moon landing to dream of flying in space as an astronaut. Building on his interest in science, he set out to become a doctor, knowing that it would increase his odds of being selected to the astronaut corps. He ultimately achieved his dream. "Dreams are the reality of the future," he said. "You need to raise your expectations of yourself. It's important they come from you; don’t build your life around the expectations of others… find your passion."

Harris also drew on his own story to urge graduates not to fear failure. Recalling how he didn't give up after the devastation of having his first application to the astronaut program rejected, he told graduates that "sometimes, failure is an option. Don't let failure define you, let failure refine you."

The first African American to walk in space, Harris took the audience on a virtual trip into orbit, recounting the thrill of flying in the space shuttle and the extraordinary experience of floating in zero gravity with the Earth and the stars of the Milky Way stretching before him. "During the quiet times I took it all in and felt about this big," he said, holding his hands close together. "The ship was sailing across the atmosphere. If there was an alien ship coming by and trying to find us, they probably wouldn't be able to locate us because we'd just be a speck on the horizon.

"But suddenly, I went from being this small person to being larger than life with this realization: that I was doing something that very few people had done before….and with this mission, I was the first African American to walk in space. Why? Because of a dream I had when I was a kid. I tell that story to remind me—to remind you—how important you are, and can be."

He then asked the graduates to stand and repeat a mantra that was inspired by that experience. "Repeat after me," he declared. "I am an infinite being with infinite possibilities."

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WPI's 150-year history was much in evidence during the graduation ceremony, which took place during the university's sesquicentennial celebration. The ceremony began with a tribute from Chairman Philip B. Ryan '65 to a hero of WPI's recent history, William R. Grogan '46, one of the creators of WPI's renowned project-based approach to education. Grogan passed away earlier this week. "The WPI community owes Bill a tremendous debt of gratitude and our eternal admiration," Ryan said.

In her charge to the Class of 2015, President Laurie Leshin recalled the 16 members of WPI's first class, the Class of 1871, who endured a daylong graduation ceremony and then had to prove themselves in the real world—some for several years—before they could receive their degrees. Today's graduates have it easier, she said, "and yet, somehow the idea that our graduates had to prove themselves in the real world as a part of completing their education rings true, doesn’t it? This history—along with the history of presenting projects to graduate—draws a strong connection through time from those first graduates to all of you.

"And that is a special thing about education, and especially about a WPI education: Graduates, the degree that you have earned here can never be taken away from you. It connects you deeply to generations of learners and thinkers and doers who came before you. And it connects you to those who went on to become the inventors of the future in which we now reside. Now you have the opportunity, as they did, to shape the world for future generations."Image removed.

"And so," she added, "as you graduate today, I only ask two more things of you: first, don’t only see the opportunities ahead, but see the responsibilities, as well. In other words, leverage what you've achieved here not just to do well, but to do good. Use your degree to make us proud."

During the ceremony, honorary doctorates were conferred upon Harris; Ellen S. Dunlap, president of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester; and Judith Nitsch’75, founding principal of Nitsch Engineering and WPI trustee emerita and the first alumna to both serve on the WPI Board of trustees and receive an honorary degree. The 2015 Chairman's Exemplary Faculty Prize was awarded to Kathi Fisler, professor ofImage removed. computer science.

Class of 2015 student speaker Roman A. Gutierrez told a story about a student named "Impact" who he said represented the achievements of all of members of the class who, thanks to the Institute's unique approach to education, are well prepared to live lives of achievement. "Here we are, knowing that WPI has prepared us to leave our mark; to leave a positive impact wherever we go," he said. "You should all be proud to call yourselves people of impact."

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Earlier in the morning, 18 cadets of the Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC programs were commissioned as officers in the U.S. military during the Worcester Consortium of Colleges Reserve Officers' Training Corps Joint Service Commissioning Ceremony. Retired Army Gen. David McKiernan, who administered the oath of office and delivered the keynote remarks, thanked WPI and the ROTC cadre for carrying on the tradition of "molding leaders, a tradition that started here at WPI way back in 1871."

"Today is an important milestone in your lives," he said. "And whether you serve three years or 30 years, you’re taking on the weighty responsibilities of leading our most important resource, the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States military services."

When they assume positions of leadership, Gen. McKiernan advised the cadets to refer to what he called the “five C’s” for guidance: commitment, confidence, candor, courage, and consistency. He noted that "with candor comes the ability and moral azimuth to always tell the truth. As soldiers like to say, you have the choice to take the hard right, or the easy wrong. Always take the hard right."