“YOU ARE READY and the world needs you….The world needs your energy and talents.” Versions of those statements are likely being repeated by keynote speakers during college commencements across the country. Sunday evening, Kathleen Howell, professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University, delivered those words to master’s and doctor of philosophy students receiving their diplomas, my son among them.
From hundreds of miles away in southern Minnesota, I watched livestreaming of the lengthy ceremony. My vestibular neuronitis symptoms prevented me from making the long trip to Indiana. But Randy was there, sitting in packed Elliott Hall of Music for hours waiting to see Caleb walk across the stage to accept his master’s diploma.
As speakers go, Howell did a stellar job of addressing graduates, reflecting on their time at Purdue and the future. And I’m not just saying that. I’ve attended college commencements thrice through the years and have heard some not so good speakers, especially the Wisconsin politician who apparently thought he was at a campaign rally rather than a university graduation.
But back to West Lafayette, Indiana, and that speech by Howell. She shaped her address around a quote from President John F. Kennedy’s “moon speech,” quite appropriate given her area of expertise and involvement with the space program. In his talk about space exploration at Rice University in Houston, Texas, in September 1962, JFK said, “We chose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Howell took that quote and expanded, suggesting grads reflect on what they’ve learned and the lessons they’ve learned. How they’ve chosen the things that are hard, pushed through hard times, modified their paths, come out stronger and more resilient. Her words, I expect resonated with many. They did with me as a parent. Howell encouraged the new degree-holders to trust themselves, to always recognize that not everything is accomplished alone. I appreciated her specific acknowledgment of those who supported, continue to support, these new graduates.
All in all, Howell’s keynote address was upbeat, uplifting, encouraging. I never once just wanted her speech to end so the ceremony could proceed. But when it did and doctorate candidates began the process of being “hooded,” I admittedly grew impatient.
Eventually, Caleb walked across the stage and I found myself overcome with emotion. He’d worked hard, met challenges to reach this point and I felt incredibly proud and grateful and many other feelings rolled into that moment. Howell’s speech caused me to reflect on Caleb as a little boy and his interest in space, not space travel as much as the solar system. He even had a star chart. His star, though, shines not in the skies, but in computer science. Caleb will be among those Purdue students who go on to create technological advancements. He’s already off to a good start with his undergrad accomplishments, independent research and work experience in the years between earning his bachelor’s (from Tufts University) and master’s degrees.
For all those parents who are watching their “kids” graduate, this is your moment, too. As Professor Howell said, none of us can do this alone. Not us. Not these new graduates. And especially not the first men on the moon.
© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling