ALBANY -- There was a common theme in each of the speeches given at the University at Albany’s 174th Commencement ceremony on Sunday.
Nearly every speaker encouraged the students to take risks, embrace the unfamiliar and not to fear failure. And if they did experience failure, they were told to learn from it and persevere.
“Never be afraid to take a chance and to make those difficult decisions,” said UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez. “One thing you learn is taking risks is the surest way to succeed.”
The speakers also encouraged the more than 1,000 graduates who sat and listened during the ceremony held at the campus’s Entry Plaza to forge their own path and accept change.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., made a surprise appearance on Sunday and told graduates that their class will be more than prepared for any changes coming their way. That’s because their generation grew up during the prevalence of the internet and the ever-changing developments in technology.
“There are great changes going on around the world, but your generation, because of those advantages, is better equipped to adapt to new changes than any generation before you,” Schumer said. “You will overcome the obstacles they present and seize the opportunities they afford.”
Dan Hart, a 1983 UAlbany graduate who is president and CEO of Virgin Orbit -- which he described as a “space startup company” -- was the keynote commencement speaker. He told the graduates his own story of how he came to get his current job of creating ways to launch rockets carrying satellites off the wing of a Boeing 747.
He said it started after accidentally sending his resume and cover letter to higher ups at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, bypassing any human resources department there.
It eventually led to his first job at McDonnell Douglas, an aerospace manufacturing company that works with the Spacelab Program at the space center, and then at the Boeing, where he worked for more than 30 years.
It’s those experiences that allowed Hart to give some advice to students.
“Follow your passion and don’t try and figure everything out right now,” Hart said. “Not knowing all of the rules and not following the normal way of doing things can be your best strength. It can open the door and start you on your way.”
Hart also touched on the fear he had when first working there.
Without having an engineering degree, not knowing the “acronym soup” he said many of the employees used when conversing at NASA, Hart had a difficult time finding his way there.
It led to him almost throwing in the towel.
“I felt completely unprepared,” Hart said. “I felt useless for weeks and months.”
Hart said it was a conversation with a former professor who told him to keep going and that he had faith in him. It’s what Hart said allowed him to keep going and have the successful career he’s had.
It’s why he told this year's graduates even when they doubt themselves to persevere.
The final message Hart had for graduates was to embrace change. He said it’s what led him to taking a call from Virgin Group founder Richard Branson to head up Virgin Orbit.
Hart told graduates that they will continue to face new things thrown in their path that will seem unfamiliar. But what they learned at UAlbany will allow them to succeed in those environments.
“Have confidence in your abilities and think about what you have accomplished here,” Hart said. “Be open to them.”
Madeeha Khan, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science on Sunday, told fellow graduates that she was forced to embrace change as soon as she moved from New Delhi to Albany.
In fact, when she got dropped off by her cab at the UAlbany campus, it was her first time in the U.S. She said she not only had to learn calculus and computer science, but also the dance moves the “Macarena” and the “Cha-Cha Slide.”
Khan said she never thought she would make it through her four years of college. But with the help of her friends and family, specifically her mother, she was able to succeed.
“So, when all of you celebrate your accomplishments today, take a minute to acknowledge the people who made this possible for you,” Khan said. “Your family, your friends, your mentors and your idols.”
The ceremony Sunday was one of many throughout the weekend for UAlbany, which saw more than 3,300 students receive degrees, according to a press release.
They began on Friday for master’s and graduate students and continued on Saturday, as there were graduation ceremonies for each undergraduate department. It ended Sunday with a ceremony covering all undergraduate students and another with doctoral students.
Rodríguez noted the undergraduate class was made of of 31 percent first-generation college graduates, as well as 32 military veterans.
Gabrielle Goldie, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in human biology on Sunday, said she was ready to achieve her goal of getting into nursing. She said college was “a really long journey.”
“It was really tough, but it was rewarding,” Goldie said.
Her friend, Melanie Murphy, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, said it felt like college went by quickly. She enjoyed her time there and made great friends, but Murphy said she was looking toward the future.
“It’s a little scary, but I’m really excited to see what I’m going to do,” Murphy said.