Durham County

Astronaut regales Eagles’ Class of 2017 with inspiring tale of reaching for the stars

Poring over beautiful old books, cramming for all those examinations and hacking away at keyboards, slouch-backed, late into the evenings as carpal tunnel ripened into tinglings, proved fruitful for North Carolina Central University's Class of 2017.

“Studying hard in the library has paid off,” said retired NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham, this year's NCCU commencement speaker Saturday.

Some 725 NCCU graduates crossed the graduation stage at O'Kelly-Riddick Stadium, the school's football stadium, Saturday morning.

Interim Chancellor Johnson Akinleye welcomed the families and friends in attendance, before senior class president Deja Young took the podium to deliver a rather nimble graduation address to her peers.

“Overall, whatever your interest may be, make sure to follow your passion because it will lead you to your purpose,” Young said. “Remember, the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. Never lose sight of your goals. Love what you do. Do what you love. And in all that you do, do it in truth and service. Thank you.”

Akinleye next introduced Higginbotham.

A member of the NCCU Board of Trustees since 2013, Higginbotham spent 308 hours in space in 2006 aboard the space shuttle Discovery and in 2007 was honored by President George W. Bush at the 81st annual White House Black History Month Celebration.

Throughout her life, whenever Higginbotham received an invitation for a speaking engagement, she said she has asked herself the same question: “What would be inspirational?” And has always answered her self-posed query with the thought, “Whatever it is, make it brief.”

“So this morning, I want to talk to you — briefly — about finding your It,” she said.

Many of Higginbotham's fellow astronauts can easily recount exactly where they were when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 and relish the thought of how that single event molded and infused new purpose into their lives.

“Personally, I couldn't have cared less,” Higginbotham said. She graduated from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 1987 wanting to be an electrical engineer.

“I have no idea where I was at that very historic moment,” Higginbotham said. “I suppose my desire to be an engineer started when I was about 8 and I laid eyes on my brother’s new, shiny transistor radio he got for his 16th birthday.”

When she opened the back of the radio, she wondered what would happen if she cut all of the colorful, pretty wires.

“So, I did,” Higginbotham said. “And at that very moment, an engineer was born.”

She never considered at career at NASA, until they recruited her out of a job at IBM.

Higginbotham’s advice for Saturday's graduates was “to have a career plan but not to be afraid to alter that plan if the right opportunity comes along.”

“Now, my It, changed...to working for NASA as a rocket scientist and launching space shuttles,” Higginbotham said. “And seriously, how many people get a chance to do that? Not many. And at that time, very few people of color. And only one African-American woman. Me.”

After seven years at NASA, its engineering director “uttered five little words” at Higginbotham that changed her life forever. He said, “You'd. Make. A. Great. Astronaut,” Higginbotham told the crowd.

Higginbotham doubted herself but after weeks of NASA's engineering director bugging her to apply to the astronaut program, she relented. Out of 6,000 applicants, Higginbotham was 1 of 20 chosen to be interviewed for the 15 available positions. She didn't make the cut and her It had changed again.

Higginbotham went back to school and obtained a second master’s degree and reapplied for the astronaut program.

“Here are the Cliffs Notes from the story that I want you to take away from today,” Higginbotham said. “First, your It will change and grow ... who knows what your It will be in five or 10 years. Second, don't let a setback hold you back ... I don't like being told that I can't accomplish something, so I had something to prove to no one else but myself ... the heights of success are measured by how one handles the lows of failure ... Third, it is up to you to find the It that fuels the desire in you.”

Higginbotham finished her commencement address in — a brief — 19 minutes.

Afterward, the Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching was presented to associate professor in the NCCU Department of Mass Communication Charmaine McKissick-Melton.

And after that, North Carolina Central University's Class of 2017 walked across the stage to their post-undergraduate lives.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks