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‘Off the beaten track’: Commencement speakers through the years

William Liu / Thresher

By Kristal Hanson and Riya Misra     4/16/24 11:09pm

A former American president, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nobel laureates and the founder of Khan Academy. All may share similar traits or levels of fame, but there’s another, quieter, common ground: They’ve all spoken at Rice’s commencement. 

This year’s commencement speaker is Rice alumna and “America’s most experienced astronaut”  Peggy Whitson ’86, who has logged more days in space — 675, to be precise — than any other American astronaut. Whitson got her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Rice in 1985, finishing her dissertation just in time to apply for a position at NASA. 

“I wanted to be able to write on my [NASA] application that I had a Ph.D. from Rice,” Whitson told Rice Magazine in 2003.

As an astronaut, she contributed to hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and earth science. From 2009 to 2012, Whitson was the first woman and first civilian to serve as the Chief of the Astronaut Office.

Half a century after John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech at Rice Stadium, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson arrived on campus to speak at the university’s 100th commencement. With him was Alice Young ’79, Tyson’s wife, making their trip more than an homage to Rice’s relationship with space exploration, but also a “homecoming,” he noted.

“We went to the moon to explore it, but in fact we discovered Earth, for the first time,” Tyson said in his commencement speech.

“In the years since we landed on the moon, America has lost its exploratory compass," he continued. "Now is the time for the Class of 2013 to lead the nation as Rice graduates once again.”

Tyson was chosen to speak by a commencement speaker selection committee, composed of undergraduate and graduate students, an associate professor, the Hanszen College magister and the senior assistant to then-Rice president David Leebron. Committee members told the Thresher in August 2012 they were seeking a commencement speaker with humor and a vibrant stage presence.

“We were looking for someone quirky and off the beaten track, like Rice students,” committee member Alex Fernandez said at the time.’

Just a year before Tyson spoke, Rice hosted Salman Khan, founder of free educational video publisher Khan Academy, for their 99th commencement. 

Shortly after Khan was announced as that year's speaker, the Thresher Editorial Board applauded the selection, deeming him a “solid choice.”

“[Khan] lacks the star power typical of a commencement speaker, yet represents many of the aspects of an ideal Rice graduate,” the editorial board wrote. “While Khan may not be a household name right now, he certainly represents the upcoming generation of leaders.”

Khan delivered his speech on a rainy May morning in 2012. He spoke about empowerment, encouraged the graduates to “ask the naive questions” and advised them to keep their success in perspective.

“I want you to think about how you can leverage [your diploma] to increase the positivity in the world and to empower others,” Khan said in his speech. “When your ego starts feeling a little bit large, keep in mind that the sun will supernova one day. We are these small mammals on this small planet. Just have peace in the little successes.”

“[His speech was] a good reminder to help others so that our degrees are for the greater good and not just to make money,” then-student Sophie Bonifaz told the Thresher after the address.

In 2003, Rice welcomed Shannon Lucid, an astronaut and scientist who held the record for the longest-duration spaceflight by an American woman at the time. In 1978, NASA announced Lucid, alongside Sally Ride, were selected as one of the first six female astronauts. In a full-circle moment, Whitson cited Lucid’s career as a catalyst for her own entry in space exploration — and, four years after Lucid’s commencement speech, broke her record for the longest-duration spaceflight.

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s 1993 speech marked Rice’s third consecutive year of hosting major political figures — then-president of Germany Richard von Weizsäcker spoke in 1992, and then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker in 1991.

In his speech, Carter emphasized the role of students and activism, especially in a post-Cold War United States. He discussed his work with the Carter Center, the human rights organization he had founded a decade prior. 

“When you are at the college level and age and have that experience behind you with an expanded mind and expanded heart … is the best time to say, ‘What will I do with [my] life?’” Carter advised the graduating class.

Peter Howley, one of the Thresher’s editors-in-chief at the time, wrote an op-ed in the May 14, 1993 issue of the Thresher describing Carter’s address as a “speech even a conservative could love.”

“Here was the man who paved the way for 12 years of Republican rule after blundering through his thankfully brief tenure,” Howley wrote. “I was prepared to cry ‘liberal’ when Carter evoked class struggle and decried discrimination by the rich against the poor. But when he defined rich to include almost every American, I saw his point.”

Founding president of Leland Stanford Junior University — now simply called Stanford, David Starr Jordan, delivered Rice’s first-ever commencement speech, titled “Is War Eternal?” in 1916.

“Leland Stanford presents the closest analogy to Rice of any college in the United States, and no man could have been chosen who is in a better position to understand thoroughly what the Institute represents,” the Thresher wrote in its Feb. 26, 1916 issue.

“It may be that kings and empires, privilege and exploitation, swords and cannon, dreadnaughts and Zeppelins must all pass away in one grand horror,” Jordan said in his speech's closing remarks. “But the end must come. God is not mocked forever, neither is man.”

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