Jemison: ‘Life is best when you live deeply and look up’

Amy McCaig -May 13, 2017

To have a happy and fulfilling life, you need to “live deeply and look up,” according to Dr. Mae Jemison, who addressed graduates at Rice University’s 104th commencement May 13 in the Academic Quad.

Dr. Mae Jemison addresses Rice’s Class of 2017. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

The first African-American woman to travel in space, Jemison, a physician, engineer, educator, entrepreneur and former astronaut, is the principal for 100 Year Starship, a global initiative to ensure the capability for interstellar human space flight by 2112. In his introduction of the commencement speaker, Rice President Leebron lauded Jemison as “an icon of the women’s and civil rights movement.”

In her commencement address, Jemison said that graduation is an outstanding platform from which graduates could consider and view what they are going to do with the rest of their lives.

“Note you have this opportunity every day, to figure out how to build your life anew, but this event is a platform that gives you a fantastic viewpoint,” she said.

Jemison said that when she distilled down the things she has found most important in her own life – from her triumphs to her failures – she fundamentally believes life is best “when you live deeply and look up.” She said this starts with the graduates understanding that they are responsible for choosing their own paths in life, but also understanding that they have the responsibility to move the future forward, and to hold other people accountable.

“Today, humans have more material wealth than at any other point in time in our history,” she said. “We have more capacity, more capabilities to include everyone in the bounty of this planet. We have the ability to help everyone live long, happy and fulfilling lives. But despite these capabilities, and a professed wish to include everyone in the bounty of the planet, excuses are made about why this cannot be done.”

President David Leebron addresses graduates at Rice’s 104th Commencement. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Jemison encouraged graduates not to shy away from the challenges of their lives and the world today.

“You have to evolve with the future, and the answer is to live deeply and look up,” she said.

Jemison said that to live deeply, one must look inside oneself and “connect to the intellectual, the physical and the emotional.”

“We can’t disregard our best selves,” she said. “We cannot disregard and dishonor any of those things – the intellectual, the physical and the emotional – if we are to be our best.”

Jemison said that living deeply is also about using all of one’s sensibilities, and to have the capacity for feeling both sadness and exhilaration.

“A lot of people want to skip the sadness part, but that’s important to feel as well because that helps us to find a better path,” she said. “It spurs our evolution and our progress. Our exhilaration and our sadness motivate us.”

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Jemison also said that graduates must take the time to “look up.” She called space “an incredible platform” from which to see the world and said it was her link to the universe as she  recalled looking down at the Earth’s atmosphere when she flew aboard a space shuttle.

Rice graduates walk through the Sallyport following Saturday’s plenary ceremony. For a 360 degree view of the entire Class of 2017’s procession through the Sallyport, see the video at the end of this article. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

“I recognized in that moment that I was connected with this universe, whether it was down here on Earth or whether it was in another star 10,000 light years away – and it felt right,” she said. “And so I still frequently look up at the sky and wonder as I have done since I was a child. I do it now to connect to the universe and to others worldwide. After all, we see the same moon, and we are linked inextricably to this Earth and the universe.”

Jemison said that looking up allows one to think about what is going on in the world, recognize their “essential” self, connect to the universe and remember that “there is a lot more that connects us than divides us.”

“That connection to the greater universe is something that I wish you throughout your lives,” she said. “I hope that no matter where you end up, whatever work you do, that you never forget to look up to see this bigger picture. I want you to never forget where you came from and what all of this is for.”

There was no shortage of smiles following the commencement ceremony. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Jemison said that people often say that happiness is what they most want in life, but spend a lot of time being unhappy.

“We forget that being happy is not something that is given to ourselves by others — it’s a choice we get to make every day,” she said. “So look up at the sky, the clouds, beyond the sun, the moon, the stars, whenever you need to recharge your batteries, your center,” she said. “Let the gravity of Earth give you a hug when you are feeling low. Look up and remember what inspires you, why you’re doing this and why you cared in the first place.

“Because if you can keep that sparkle in your eye, that dancing energy of aliveness and possibility, if you can keep this long past graduation, you will be well on your way to a magical life, a life full of love, service, connection and meaning,” Jemison concluded. “And all you have to do is live deeply, and look up.”

Leebron presented the 2017 Dr. Mae C. Jemison Award for Academic Achievement and Public Service to Audrey Odwuor, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Earth science. The award is presented to the graduating student whose work best serves the humanitarian issues represented by the speaker. (Read more about the award here.)

Prior to the commencement address, Board of Trustees Chair Bobby Tudor ’82 and Leebron welcomed students, families and friends to the outdoor ceremony on a sunny Saturday. Leebron thanked families for “lending these outstanding graduates who contributed so richly to (Rice’s) community.”

Friday night's Undergraduate Convocation ended with a fireworks display above the Academic Quad. Photo by Brandon Martin.

Friday night’s Undergraduate Convocation ended with a fireworks display above the Academic Quad. (Photo by Brandon Martin)

Griffin Thomas, past president of the Student Association, and Catherine Majors, past president of the Graduate Student Association, also addressed the graduates and shared wisdom from their years at Rice.

Rice conferred 2,034 degrees to 1,986 students, some of whom claimed double or triple majors, including 964 recipients of undergraduate or undergraduate professional degrees and 1,025 recipients of master’s or Ph.D. degrees. Separate ceremonies were held May 12 to individually recognize the recipients of bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and business degrees, and then all degrees were conferred during the plenary ceremony May 13.

This video features a 360 degree view of the Class of 2017 walking through the Sallyport after commencement. Scroll your mouse over the video as it plays to change the angle. (Video by Brandon Martin and Nicholas McMillan ’19)

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