Commencement Address

Pamela Melroy's Address to Wellesley's Graduating Class of 1998

Thank you so much for inviting me to share this special day with you. It was fifteen years ago when I sat in your seat; and I'm wondering how many of you are hiding a bottle of champagne under your robe to share, just like I did. Fifteen years ago, I listened to Susan Sontag advise my class to "be bold". Excellent advice, although if she had known me personally she probably would have advised me to "be mellow!" And fifteen years ago, an unspoken dream arrived in my heart -- that someday I would prove sufficiently worthy to future fellow Wellesley alumnae that they would ask me to share to this moment with them. Thank you, for making this dream come true for me. I would hope that at least some of you are imagining that also. To you, I look forward to seeing your dream come true, as mine has, and I hope that your experience is as wonderful as mine has been.

A dream come true - do dreams imply weakness? I think they imply strength. Dreams are a subject of considerable interest to me, because of the twists and turns of my own. What is my definition of a dream? It's a vision -- a goal which is not a foregone conclusion. It is an imagination of yourself in a situation which you might barely comprehend now, but somehow yearn for. It is a true reflection of who you are - what you value, what your strengths are, and (for some of us) what weaknesses you most wish to overcome. By its very nature, no one can dream a dream for you, or limit your dream; only you can say who you are, and what you imagine your highest fulfillment as a person to be.

You may have heard: hold fast to your dreams. Also good advice, but I would remind you that because they are a reflection of who you are, it's OK if your dreams change with time. As you grow and change, so your dreams will also transform and mature. Now, you might be thinking: if I dreamed of being an astronaut when I was 11 years old, and never changed my mind, does that mean I haven't grown up? Absolutely! At various points, I did review and test my dream.

But the sense of wonder at the universe, the desire to learn about the way things work, and the yearning to do something I believe to be of great value to all human beings - no, you can call me Peter Pan, but I haven't grown out of any of that yet. You may also discover a dream so true to your own soul that you will never grow out of it, either. But what is important is the dream, not how long you've had it. As you journey through life, the overall landscape of your dreams will change all the time.

There is another aspect of dreams; they are not just an internal joy and a description of who you are and what you believe. They are also your road map to life. Life is a journey, not a destination; why choose the next town over for the trip of your life, when you've always wanted to see Paris? Small goals are important to have as well, for they mark distance traveled and lessons learned, but think big for at least a few of your dreams! The more magical and foreign your destination is, the more rewarding and educational your journey will be.

I learned this lesson several years ago, when I was a test pilot, very close to achieving my lifelong dream of being an astronaut. Now, life's lessons are funny things - most of them are understood through quiet reflection and review. Others hit you with all the subtlety of a train wreck. My train wreck occurred when, for a period of about a year, I was suddenly medically disqualified from applying to be an astronaut. The circumstances aren't important, but when I finally poked my head up above the wreckage and surveyed the damage, my greatest comfort was this realization. Given my personal self-image years earlier, I would never have just decided to be a test pilot; it was my dream of flying in space that took me there. And I really, really loved my job - I was born to do it. And I never would have found it if I hadn't aimed for space.

Shortly after this realization, with the pieces put back together and happily reinstated on my journey, I reached a bend in the road. And around the bend was my old dream, now ready and waiting for me.

So in your life's journey, there will be excitement and fulfillment, boredom and routine, and even the occasional train wreck. The valleys are hard, when the next mile marker is out of sight, and it looks all uphill from here. But when you have picked a dream that is bigger than you personally, that truly reflects the ideals that you cherish, and that can positively affect others, then you will always have another reason for carrying on. Being a part of the American space research program and building the new International Space Station for me means being a part of a dream for our future, and for our children's future. This conviction has made the three year wait for my first mission assignment fly by in pleasure instead of anxiety.

Now, as Anais Nin said, "Our life is composed greatly from dreams, and they must be brought into connection with action. They must be woven together." Action is the movement that takes us from where we are now, toward our dreams. Maybe you realize this already, but it wasn't obvious to me until later what help toward our dreams Wellesley gives all of us. The environment here gives women a place to dream without being restricted or blinded by culturally generated limits. When I went to Wellesley, every single science major I knew was a woman.

After living in this world for four years, the idea that women are not interested in or good at math and science seemed ludicrous to the point that I was not angry when I heard it later. I was merely embarrassed for the foolishness of the speaker, and glad for an opportunity to educate them. There ARE no limits except those that you perceive, and Wellesley gives the great gift of freedom to see clearly. This gift has been so important to the success of my dream to fly in space that I have decided to carry some token of Wellesley into space with me when I fly next year. I don't know what it will be, yet, but I look forward to seeing our beautiful campus from space, and returning this token afterwards, and to share the story of my experience.

But there is more; your Wellesley education has provided you with something else as well as the permission to look clearly at yourself. I simply can't miss the opportunity to use a physics analogy that I have seen to be true in the world of human interaction as well as the physical world - the principle of momentum. What is momentum? It is defined as mass times velocity. In a way, it's a measure of how hard it is to stop something. I have observed that small successes lead to larger ones - that project you worked late on results in "Employee of the Month." The next project that you excel at, plus Employee of the Month, becomes the Employee of the Year.

That award in turn leads you to the job with greater responsibility. With each success you become harder to stop. In this equation, the mass is YOU, your mind, your heart, your will, and your talents, which will continue to grow as you learn.

Velocity is defined as speed, plus its direction. Those dreams of your will provide you with the direction. And Wellesley has given you speed! Your degree is a huge professional success, the first big one for many of us. It is impressive and greatly valued by employers and graduate schools, as many of you know already. It will provide you with your first push. Work hard, and watch the speed build. It all starts right here. Let me put it to you in another way: you're on a roll!

And whatever your dreams are -- whether it is to parent or nurture the next Mother Teresa, to teach and to guide the next Georgia O'Keeffe, or to be the next Marie Curie, I congratulate you on a wonderful start - you go, girl!

Related

1998 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

Read the full citations.