By Kelly Glista, Hartford Courant
STORRS — The commencement speaker for the University of Connecticut‘s School of Engineering couldn’t make it to campus to give his speech in person on Saturday, but the graduates seemed to understand. After all, the International Space Station is a long way from Storrs.
As he began his video speech to approximately 400 engineering students about to receive their degrees, astronaut Rick Mastracchio speculated about how to make the address memorable.
“I thought, I’m in a weightless environment,” he said. “Maybe I should give the speech in a different orientation.”
The crowd of students, faculty and parents inside Gampel Pavilion laughed and applauded as Mastracchio proceeded to flip himself upside down, floating between two spacesuits aboard the space station, where the Waterbury native and UConn alumnus has been for the past six months.
“I probably have the best job, on or off the earth,” Mastracchio said, after he righted himself for the camera.
He went on to explain that getting the job wasn’t easy; after his own graduation from UConn in 1982, Mastracchio earned two master’s degrees, worked several engineering jobs and repeatedly sent in applications to NASA’s astronaut corps. After nine years of applying, Mastracchio was chosen as an astronaut candidate in 1996.
“Nine years is a long time to pursue anything, especially a job,” he said.
Mastracchio said that becoming an astronaut is like accomplishing any goal: It takes “hard work and perseverance,” qualities he said the graduates had already shown by making it through UConn’s engineering program.
“That is not easy,” he said. “I have been there.”
This is Mastracchio’s fourth mission to the International Space Station, which is orbiting about 260 miles above the Earth’s surface. He told the graduates Saturday that at his commencement, he never could have imagined he’d be where he is today.
“It is up to you how far you go,” he said.
Kazem Kazerounian, dean of the School of Engineering and Provost Mun Choi presented Mastracchio with an honorary doctoral degree, which his wife, Candace, accepted on his behalf.
Kazerounian said that in addition to being an accomplished engineer and astronaut, Mastracchio “serves as the role model for countless dreamers.”
In his own speech to the graduates, Kazerounian said that there is a renewed respect and recognition for engineers in the world. Many of this year’s graduates will be working to solve some of humanity’s biggest problems, he said.
“In many ways, the future of humanity is entrusted to you,” Kazerounian said. “That gives me comfort.”
Graduate Rose Cersonsky spoke about collaboration and gaining strength from her peers in the class of 2014. She urged the engineering students not to forget the human aspect of their future endeavors.
“Often it’s not the technological impact the makes us memorable, it’s the lives we touched,” she said. “The greatest mark we leave on this world is the impact on those around us.”
Each speaker was met with enthusiastic applause from the soon-to-be alumni, but one of the loudest cheers came at the end of Mastracchio’s speech, when he paused to don a UConn hat that had been hanging next to him.
“Oh yeah, one more thing,” he said. “Go Huskies!”