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Photo of Kathie L. Olsen
Credit: Sam Kittner/kittner.com

Dr. Kathie L. Olsen
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

"One Friend to Another"

University of Arizona
College of Science Convocation
Centennial Hall
Tucson, Ariz.

May 15, 2008

Thank you, Joaquin, for the kind introduction, and thank you, Gail, for the invitation to be here. I am delighted to share this special occasion with you.

Thinking back to my own graduation, I tried to remember who the speaker was. I drew a blank. To make sure I wasn't having a "senior moment," I asked my colleagues if they remembered who spoke at their graduations. They only remembered if the speaker was the President, a senator, a movie star, or Mr. Rogers.

It turns out that I'm just not famous enough. So, I came up with "plan B." Are you ready for this?

image of musical notePlayed clip of 2 Unlimited's "Get Ready for This."

I hope my new copy of "Improving Your Memory for Dummies" was right. It said, "If you want people to remember what you say, set it to music." So, here goes. I just hope you recognize the songs that I've chosen from my eight-track collection.

Now, let's get to the important items. First, my warmest congratulations to all of the graduates, and an especially warm greeting--and congratulations--to all the of parents, the family, and the friends who have helped to make this a landmark day.

To the parents of our graduates, I imagine how you must feel. Hallelujah!

image of musical notePlayed clip of "Hallelujah!" from Handel's Messiah.

To the graduates, I salute you! This is payoff for all the long nights studying; loads of caffeine; and the many times that you answered that question: "Are you ever going to graduate?"

To help me prepare for this speech, I checked out Facebook to see what you University of Arizona students were doing. But, don't worry; I'm not going to tell your parents.

I did learn though that you worked really hard to get to this day. I remember how it feels. You've paid your dues, and today, you're the champions.

image of musical notePlayed clip of Queen's "We Are the Champions."

While it may be graduation season all over the country, it's important to realize that the vast majority of people your age will never see their names in one of these programs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2008), only about 29 percent of U.S. citizens earn bachelor's degrees, and far fewer go on to earn graduate degrees. Being here today is a major accomplishment for you and for your family.

The world you're about to enter is in some ways very similar to the one in which I graduated, but it is also dramatically different.

The differences are easy: eight-track, tapes, to iPods; tasting blackberries to texting on them; and; in my day, things were something you wore on your feet. Mick Jagger was young, and he wasn't satisfied then either.

image of musical notePlayed clip of Mick Jagger's "I Can't Get No Satisfaction."

It's the similarities that worry me. We too had a war; we too had a major energy crisis. Gas was only 55 cents a gallon. But at that time, that was huge. And, there was the question on whether or not we could get at it all. We used to have long lines at the gas pump and actually had to alternate every other day depending upon your license.

I can't help but believe that there's more my generation should have done to help yours avoid these problems. On a day like today when we pause to look both forward and back, let's not forget that the future is what we make it--for better or for worse.

But, today your future is bright, and I have every confidence that you will leave it a better world than you found it. As they tell us; "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

image of musical notePlayed clip of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet."

Trust me. Life is an endless unfolding. It is an endless process of self-discovery, and an unpredictable dialogue between our own potential and life as we find it. It's my hope that you will keep on evolving, embrace change, and that you'll motivate others to accept and adapt to change as well.

There is so much to be excited about. My generation is now passing the torch of leadership to your generation. You will soon become the professors, the industrial leaders, and innovators of tomorrow. You will form new networks of friends; travel to exotic places; build careers; and perhaps even marry and become parents yourself.

image of musical notePlayed clip of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World."

Many of you may have in mind a specific goal for your life: Go for it! If your goal is to become a scientist, an engineer, a mathematician, or an innovator incubating a small business; it's even possible that the National Science Foundation might provide you with support.

If you want to get your carbon footprint down to zero--you can. If you want to be the first person to break the speed of sound in a solar-powered car, speed on!

image of musical notePlayed clip of Rascal Flatts' "Life is a Highway."

Your generation is the best educated--the most highly skilled in our nation's history. Your knowledge and degrees serve as a special passport to a rewarding career, whether it be in academia, industry, or politics. Your proven ability to think critically will be essential in the coming era; especially when you can expect to change careers multiple times.

As graduates, you are ready to take your skills, knowledge and dreams out into the world. You might even like a real job.

image of musical notePlayed clip of George Thorogood's "Get a Haircut."

The good news about a college degree is that you can't leave home without it. It's yours forever. And with the doors it will open, you have much to look forward to. That graduation tassel hanging from your rear-view mirror cost five dollars. That wardrobe for your first real job--yes parents--500 dollars. And, the life-long friends that you made while at the University of Arizona--priceless.

image of musical notePlayed clip from Friend's theme song.

At this point, I am going to cut the music for a few moments and get serious with you.

We are a "global community" of six billion people, most of whom are poor, and yet filled with hope of better future; a future that is yours for the making.

Perhaps what FDR, or President Roosevelt, said to his own generation is more relevant today than ever before, "This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."

I want to leave you with Kathie Olsen's top three rules for turning destiny's challenges into opportunities, and opportunities into success.

Number 1: Always keep the high moral ground. Some decisions will be really difficult for you to make, and may not please everyone.

You may sometimes be tempted to compromise your own values and ideals. Remember, the only person that you have to be able to face squarely every day--no matter what else happens--is the one in your mirror. Don't ever let that person down.

Number 2: Be able to laugh at yourself. Sometimes that's all that you can do. Believe me, I've made some pretty painful mistakes. It just doesn't work to take yourself too seriously.

For example, I was the first biologist to serve as NASA's Chief Scientist. Space Science wasn't my area of expertise, but I worked hard and learned quickly. After about just two-and-a-half weeks on the job, I could name my planets--in order. I knew my space missions: Mars Exploration Rovers, Cassini, Chandra, Hubble, and many more. I was very proud of my new knowledge.

So, I am now in a Cassini briefing with some of the key leaders in space science because Cassini was about ready to circle back around the Earth to get the momentum to jet off to Saturn. Once it reached Saturn, it was so incredible because it was planning to swim through the rings to get information to send back to Earth.

Now, as you know, the government loves acronyms: NSF, NIH, NASA. But, NASA loves acronyms even more. They have a code-U, code-S, code-X, Code-I, and every single one of their spacecrafts is known by their acronym.

But today, I kept hearing HST-this, HST-that, and I didn't know what HST was. And since there are no dumb questions; right? I finally stopped them and said; "What on Earth is HST?"

There was silence; you could have heard a pin drop. Finally, and I swear it was in unison, they turned and said; "HST is the Hubble Space Telescope."

What could I do? I just burst out laughing. I asked them all to hold hands and I said, "Our secret that the NASA Chief Scientist asked what HST stood for."

It just goes to show that none of us is perfect. Don't ever even try to be. You'll find that a lot more people are willing to stand beside you in life if you are as are quick to acknowledge your weaknesses, and to laugh at your mistakes, as you are to advertise your strengths.

Number 3: Well, to explain Number 3, I need to tell you another story. It's a story that my ex-boss, former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, told during yet another graduation speech.

By the way, that was Rule Number 3-A: Always give credit! You never know who's in the audience.

The story is about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Supreme Court justice from the beginning of the last century, and one of the most frequently cited justices in history. In fact, he's the one who authored the clear-and-present-danger decision that is still very relevant today.

One afternoon, according to the story, Holmes was traveling by train. When the conductor came to collect his ticket, Holmes couldn't find it. He looked for it frantically, and appeared quite upset.

The conductor reassured him, "Don't worry about your ticket, Mr. Holmes. We all know who you are. When you get to your destination, you can find it and just mail it to us."

"My dear man," Holmes replied, "The problem is not my ticket. The problem is ... is where am I going?"

Just like Holmes, we never are exactly sure where we are going in this venture called life. So rule number 3 is--always be flexible and open to change. Even when you have it all planned, life can change course in an instant.

Be open to new experiences, and be confident. Even I am still wondering about my next destination in life. Just know that your training and life experiences have prepared you.

To paraphrase a famous Nobel Prize winner, "Discovery is an accident meeting a prepared mind." Your graduation today is one tribute to your prepared mind. Although you may only have one dance left here as an Arizona Wildcat, I'm here to remind you that, "you've got the music in you!"

image of musical notePlayed clip of New Radicals' "You've Got the Music in You."

Class of 2008! You've earned today's celebration. You've got the music in you. The future is yours. Thank you and congratulations!



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