Vande Hei’s inspiring words usher SJU graduates into a new world

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May 13, 2019

By Dave DeLand

Mark Vande Hei

Mark Vande Hei

Any number of university commencement speakers have told an audience of graduating seniors that the sky is the limit.

Mark Vande Hei is one of a select few who took that limit even higher.

“Don’t just seize the day today – seize the century, YOUR century,” said the 1989 Saint John’s University graduate and NASA astronaut during his Commencement address Sunday, May 12, to SJU’s Class of 2019. “Humanity is counting on you. Make it count, and have a blast doing it.”

“Today is absolutely time to celebrate for each of you,” Saint John’s President Michael Hemesath ’81 said during the ceremony at Saint John’s Abbey and University Church.

“You’re a graduate now of Saint John’s University. And that means something.”

A total of 412 graduates received diplomas Sunday during Saint John’s 162nd year of conferring degrees.

“Johnnies, I have every confidence that as you walk across this stage today, you are walking into greatness,” said College of Saint Benedict President Mary Hinton, whose school conferred degrees Saturday on its Class of 2019.

“This marks the day,” Vande Hei added, “when you begin a new life.”

Three decades after graduating from Saint John’s ROTC program with a physics degree, Vande Hei came back Sunday to share the inspirational message of a career that has taken him around the world and into orbit.

“On May 28, 1989, I was sitting where you are now, having no idea that 30 years later I’d be standing on the other side of the podium,” he said. “You never know what’s in store for you.”

What was in store for Vande Hei was a distinguished U.S. Army career … a master’s degree from Stanford and a physics professorship at the U.S. Military Academy … selection to the 20th NASA astronaut in 2009 as one of nine chosen out of a pool of 3,500 applicants … and 168 days in space aboard the International Space Station in 2017-18 on a mission that included scientific research and four space walks.

For all those reasons and more, Vande Hei was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree Sunday before his Commencement address.

“His life is the embodiment of values most of us hold dear,” Hemesath said before reading the opening line of the degree citation:

“Look to the skies, and sometimes you will find your dream.”

Vande Hei did exactly that, and on Sunday it became the source of his inspirational words on an array of topics:

  • On stewardship: “I’m going to try to share with you some perspectives that I’ve gained from spending time living off the planet,” Vande Hei said. “All of us, without realizing it, are the crew of a spacecraft – the Earth.”
  • On working with others: “I hope that you seek out the different perspectives that come with befriending those who are different from you, who think about things differently – and in so doing, make your notes in the song more harmonious.”
  • On the power of mindful perseverance: “Be attentive. Be mindful of what it is you choose and appreciate it. Listen to the notes of that song,” Vande Hei said. “The notes you choose to play in small acts of kindness have ripple effects far beyond any one human’s finite existence.

“My hope for you is that you’ll sing your notes of the song boldly. I hope that you will play notes of that song that involve some risk and adventure, and that you will grow from both your successes and failures.

“I hope you will embrace all of it – the tragedies and joys – and make this song more beautiful than ever.”