Astronaut scheduled to speak at graduation

The final words of wisdom graduating students will hear at SIUC will come from someone who has a few accomplishments himself.

Mark Kelly has been to space, beat cancer and his wife survived an attempted assassination. He’ll be speaking at this year’s May commencements.

While graduation ceremonies will differ this year due to consolidation, Chancellor Rita Cheng said having Kelly speak at the ceremonies is a positive for the change.

Kelly is a retired U.S. Navy Captain and and an experienced naval aviator, according to the university commencement website. He is married to former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from an attempted assassination in January 2011. The two wrote and released a memoir about the experience later that year titled “Gabby.” Kelly is also a prostate cancer survivor.

Cheng said Kelly was recommended to speak at the commencement by members of a committee she created this year to reevaluate the ceremonies. In January, Cheng announced the several graduation commencements at different colleges will be condensed into three main ceremonies at the SIU Arena on Sat., May 12.

The committee looked at several speaker candidates, she said.

“He just kind of came to the top right away,” Cheng said.

Cheng said Kelly’s talk might be particularly appealing to some students because of his experiences. For instance, she said people involved with the rehabilitation institution may look forward to Kelly’s talk since he is a cancer survivor. His experience with aviation, she said, may be intriguing to flight students.

“People (in our aviation program) are so excited because he is a four-time astronaut, and he has been a commander of one of the flights,” she said.

Jeff Hayes, an aviation instructor, echoed that sentiment. He said he finds it exciting that Kelly will speak at
the ceremonies.

“It’s to show people that they can achieve whatever they put their mind to,” he said.

Kelly’s relation to specific interests isn’t the only reason he was chosen, Cheng said. She said the theme of his talk, “Endeavor to Success,” connects with the new marketing strategy the university paid Chicago firm Lipman-Hearn to create last fall.

“It really connects with the work that we’ve been doing about achieving and knowing no bounds and endless possibilities, and that’s really what I want our students to remember from their commencement,” she said.

Although Kelly’s booking has excited some, others said they are not looking forward to the speech because they are still displeased with the ceremonies’ consolidation.

Keith Haseman, a senior from Crystal Lake studying forestry, said he would prefer a less distinguished speaker over a larger ceremony.

“I think the speaker is less important,” he said. “I am more disappointed that the graduations are not all at individual colleges.”

Similarly, Renee Middlebrooks, a junior from Chicago studying healthcare management, said she’d prefer a less distinguished speaker if the ceremonies were not consolidated this year.

“But still, somebody we could relate to would be good,” she said.

One reason Cheng cited for the ceremonies’ changes earlier this semester was to celebrate the university’s pride with major events. A distinguished speaker is something students, faculty and guests remember, she said.

“I’m really very excited, and I want people to be talking about SIU in the same circles they talk about (the University of Illinois) and they’re talking about Virginia Tech,” she said. “It just elevates us in the eyes of those (who) need to be thinking about college, that great things happen here every single day.”

Erin McCree, a junior from Marion studying animal science, may not be a graduating this year, but she said she appreciates the university’s strive for a distinguished speaker.

“I would like a good speaker,” she said. “Someone like (Kelly) would be good. It makes it more memorable.”


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