A Message to the Graduates of 2015

By Thomas Zurbuchen

This weekend, thousands of University of Michigan students will participate in commencement, and many will likely face their post-college days with a mix of trepidation and excitement. What I hope they’ll carry with them from U-M, especially in moments of challenge and uncertainty, is the power to use education to expand their horizons throughout their life.

Our students motivate me to come to work every day and do my best to create opportunities, open doors, and empower them toward a bright future. As a professor of space science and aerospace engineering, I build space instruments along with my research group, that explore different worlds. In fact, today is a special day for us: an instrument I have been working on for nearly two decades will crash into the surface Mercury. It’s coming to an end with a bang – a planned end to a successful mission that has taught us new things about the planet that is closest to the Sun. Nearly 100 students, faculty and staff at the University of Michigan created that success, as a team.

For me, this success started with education. Many view education as a means to an end – you earn a degree, and then go out and get the job you may have always dreamt about. Achieving that type of goal is indeed a part of higher education, but it is so much more. Education is about enlarging the space of options, about seeing new goals you have never even considered. That is how I ended up where I am now. Did I ever think about building space instruments? No, I never knew a scientist or engineer till the age of 18.

See, I grew up in the Swiss mountains, in a village of 500 inhabitants and a lot more cows than people. I still love it there: The sky is darker than most places I have ever been, and besides the cowbells and the wind in the trees, nights are absolutely quiet.

The one thing that made things harder for me, besides the location and lack of context, was the fact that my family was at the center of a fundamentalist church that rejected technology, education, and any other worldly influences. My parents are exemplary in many ways, but I struggled with an upbringing devoid of normal things like sports, television or movies, and certain social events. You can see how this type of upbringing could have limited my options.

Thankfully, I still had the opportunity to attend public school. Although it wasn’t even a great school, this is when I first realized the power education has to expand expectations. My experience in that school enlarged the space of thought and action I was living in and set the course for a journey that by far exceeded what people expected of me, or even what I expected of myself. See, education is about achieving your potential, finding new pathways, and growing.

Which leads me to my message to this year’s graduates: Embrace your new opportunities and don’t limit yourself. Continue to let your education widen your worldview and broaden what you think is possible, and encourage others to do the same. It will lead to great things. So, never ever stop learning, even as you walk across the stage this weekend, diploma in hand.

Many of you will be supported by family and friends and should be grateful for the help you’ve received from them to achieve this milestone. But I also understand what it’s like to lack that support.

My family actually discouraged higher education, and never attended my graduations or award ceremonies. In fact, I didn’t attend graduations because I did not want to be there alone. Needless to say, it wasn’t the happiest of times for me.

But, you see, to my surprise, it was my simple upbringing, the tough patches I went through, and the fact that I therefore saw the immense opportunities that came from my education that gave me skills that are well beyond what others received.

I am convinced that you will have the same experience. Whether a certain predicament you have turns into strength or a weakness will be up to you. You’ve likely had to persevere through many difficult situations to get to this point. And we know now that success in life and in career is more often achieved by people who have grit and persistence, and who are able to re-invent themselves.

Finally, embrace opportunities to be a mentor. Be deeply compassionate and be open to lessons the people you meet along the way have to teach.

Invest in paying it forward. Take all experiences – good and bad – and turn them into lessons and help for others. In my mind, there is no greater satisfaction.

So I hope that your educational journey, like mine, will expand what you thought possible. I hope that you never stop learning and allow your unique perspective to shape your future successes. I hope that you remain compassionate and pay it forward for those who seek the same educational opportunities and brighter futures.

You never know, one day you could end up on a team that develops a spacecraft to crash into a planet or something even cooler! If you do, please let us know about it.

Congratulations, class of 2015. Enjoy this moment and the successes to come.

Go Blue!

Comments (4)
  • Anik Ganguly

    May 1, 2015

    Professor Zurbuchen,

    A beautiful message on a very important occasion. Today is the conclusion of the Mercury mission to which you contributed immensely. You are too modest in making just a passing reference to it. Only insiders will know what an important personal contribution you have made in deepening our understanding of the solar system.

    Thank you for all that you have done to advance science, education and entrepreneurship. Thank you for being a mentor to so many students including my daughter Shika.

    — Anik

  • Thomas H Zurbuchen

    May 1, 2015

    Thanks, Anik! Much appreciated. It is my absolutely favorite part of my job to have a small role in helping amazing students like Shika find their passion and launch their career!

    Thanks also for what you do to mentor students and young entrepreneurs around the Ann Arbor area.

  • John Keedy

    May 1, 2015

    My son graduates tomorrow. I intent to share your message. It is inspiring. Thank you for sharing.

  • Thomas H Zurbuchen

    May 12, 2015

    Congrats to your son, John, and to the entire family!

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