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Commencement Remarks by Keynote Speaker Jacob E. Bleacher, Ph.D., '00

Remarks as prepared:

Seeing that Space Launch System rocket lift off for Artemis I still gives me goosebumps. Class of 2023, I hope you have the opportunity to be involved in something at that scale in your life, something that can give you lifelong goosebumps as well.

I bet there are a few goosebumps throughout this building today. This is such a wonderful event, graduation. Lots of energy. I recommend that you enjoy this, take it all in.

Thank you to the support networks out there. Your family and friends.

Thanks to President Altmann and the board of trustees, faculty, distinguished guests.

I can remember during my senior year, here in this facility, winning the intramural floor hockey league championship with the first, maybe only, complete season without allowing a single goal. Of course you all remember that? It must be enshrined here somewhere. No? Well, nonetheless, I left here with many fond memories as I’m sure you will be doing as well. Heading into a world that won’t care much about those memories and heroics here at F&M. But those memories have led to experience.

Experience that will propel you along a path through this world, which will define your life story.

For you, perhaps more than most classes, this experience has been earned along a difficult path. If I understand correctly, you had completed just one semester of College when the norms, the tradition, the heritage of college, of life in general were flippedupside down. You succeeded in college during a global pandemic that affected all of us. You were no longer following a path that many others had been down before, for which others could advise you how to proceed. You learned to support each other, you developed empathy for each other. And together you made it here today. I commend you for your toughness and resilience. You are an impressive bunch.

And perhaps that specific experience has put you in a position to face that world beyond college, maybe more so than any of your predecessors before you. Perhaps your unique experiences outside the norms and rules of traditional college experiences might lead you to build a better world that is not controlled by the norms of the past, but focused on the opportunity of the future. That is what I would like to talk to you about today.

But first, you might be asking yourself, who is this guy? Well, I’m a Franklin & Marshall graduate from the class of 2000. I took a BA in Geosciences with me from F&M to the Arizona State University where I learned to enjoy studying volcanoes and lava flows. I’ve been asked why I picked volcanoes, and the answer is actually quite simple. I rapidly deduced that volcanoes commonly create ocean islands, and ocean islands are great places to do field research. If you must travel for work, why not travel to Hawaii? My experiences in field research led me to a career at Goddard Space Flight Center. The experiences of conducting field research led me to begin supporting human space flight activities as a NASA Test Subject, more affectionately known as a NASA Crash Test Dummy. I had the chance to drive rovers, test suits, use tools, all under the engineering challenge of “see if you can break it”.

Honestly, I spent my research career looking around and finding which opportunities would lead me to the most fun things possible to do. Play with liquid planet on an ocean island, drive prototype Moon buggies around the desert to see if I could break them, launch really big rockets? The most amazing part of that path for me was the Management instruction early in my career to learn as much as possible from the few remaining Apollo personnel as I could. For this, I also had already gained some experience at F&M.

I’d like to point out my colleague, mentor and a dear friend Don Wise. This man was in the room when the Apollo 11 astronauts became the first humans on the Moon. This man was also the professor who walked into my freshman year intro geology course at a time when I was questioning where I was heading and if I had made the right choice to go to college. He lit a passion in my soul that still rages today. He, along with many others here at F&M set me on a course to find my path, and finding your path is what life is all about.

My job path has involved ever increasing amounts of integration between different groups, disciplines, experts, who although they speak the same language, also speak a very different dialect or discipline lingo. Despite all of my book knowledge, certificates, degrees, robes and hats, none of it taught me how to do this work. This type of integration between diverse teams is set within the context of NASA’s bold challenges, which can generally be summed up as “go do the impossible”.

Robert H Goddard: "It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow."

Working for NASA means working to accomplish the impossible. In essence, to pull off a miracle. Something that cannot be done. This is not something accomplished by individuals. Accomplishing the impossible requires hard work done by teams. Teams that provide a breadth of problem solving. Those teams are composed of unique individuals who must learn to work together. However, doing so requires strong leadership to build those teams, and recognizing how to encourage folks to reach their true potential.

I can remember being in these halls, giving presentations to my professors and peers, the great class of 2000. One thing I can remember is being completely nervous. But they held me and each of us accountable to put in the work and gain the experience to help us reach our full potential, and I thank them all for that.

Well, every time I come back here I feel more calm, but every time I come here the crowd gets bigger and bigger. It’s a serious kick in the pants to stand in front of people and tell them what you think. And a commencement speech is a big one. 

One thing I can say about commencement speeches is if you are ever asked to give a commencement speech, don’t look up “good commencement speech” on the internet. It’s not very helpful. What’s hard about commencement speeches is that it’s nearly impossible not to sound like a cliché machine. 

Cliché is defined as: A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought. Wow, that sounds negative doesn’t it? Its a true academic insult.

However, cliches are cliches for a reason. It’s good stuff. Great quotes, wonderful advice, and most likely somebody else has already said it somewhere in the history of humankind. I think that a commencement speech is not a requirement to invent new material, or non-cliché advice. I think a commencement speech is an opportunity to deliver a challenge.

I will challenge you to use your opportunity to build a better world. The world you are about to enter will challenge you, will question you, will push back against any change you hope to enact. Inertia is a thing. Both in physics and in society. None of this is unexpected. So don’t let it rile you.

You do need to understand that your diploma is opportunity. You also need to understand that Opportunity comes with responsibility.

When you accept your diploma and the opportunity that comes with it, make sure that you accept the responsibility as well. Responsibility is not the plastic wrapper on your diploma. Don’t crumple up the responsibility and leave it on the floor. My challenge to you is to accept your responsibility and to use your opportunity to improve the world around us. You will face many impossibilities in your life, but never stop trying to use your opportunity to make the world a better place.

I consider opportunity in three stages.

The first stage of Opportunity is: Take Advantage of Opportunity for yourself.

I grew up in Lancaster County, in a small town south of here called Willow Street. I spent my childhood riding my bike, building damns in creeks, playing street hockey. Very few of my family members had gone to college, and neither did many folks that I knew. But my parents stressed to me the value of education. My mother accepted an opportunity to take a job here in the Registrar’s office in order to provide a better understanding of the college world, one we didn’t have much experience with. She worked to make a

better world for herself and those around her. I can remember seeing George and Martha on the horizon and knowing that my Mom was there, at Franklin and Marshall College. When I was a kid my father took evening classes here at F&M to earn an associate’s degree. He did this around a demanding physical labor job, coaching baseball, and delivering me from here to there. It wasn’t easy, but he showed me the value of stepping out of his comfort zone and working hard to earn something for himself. He took his opportunity and made the world better for him and those around him. However, it can often be difficult to recognize and interpret the opportunities around you. Sometimes you might feel as if they aren’t even there.

Stan Mertzman Don’t know where you are going, that’s great! Now you can go find out what you love to do. That simple message has been key to my path.

Expectations can often make it nearly impossible to see the opportunities around you.

I never seemed to know where I was heading compared to others around me. However, I never felt or applied pressure to myself to follow any specific path. That’s really what my path was, looking around and taking advantage of the opportunities in front me.

If the opportunities are not obvious to you, try relaxing your expectations.

If you remove the constraints of expectation you will likely see that you are in fact surrounded by opportunity.

However, even when you can see the opportunities around you, they aren’t always easy to take advantage of. Opportunity is rarely comfortable or easy and you will likely question yourself in making those choices. For example, imposter syndrome. I remember leaving here and wondering if I really had what it takes to be a success. Sure, I had proven myself here, but I still had doubts. I still have doubts. Every day. But now I understand that doubts are a part of the path. When President Altmann invited me to be here with you all today, my immediate response was, Yes! Then my next thought was, “who backed out on F&M, why would they want to hear from me?” Seriously, I even said it to my wife in the kitchen. Her response was “why woudn’t people want to hear from you”?

Insecurity, Uncertainty, doubt, these are emotions that everyone faces and they make it hard to take advantage of opportunity. It’s ok. Don’t spend your time fighting with yourself. Trust me, there are more than enough fights out there in life. Do not let those feelings keep you from your path. Trust the people around you. Listen to those who love you. Regardless of why I’m here, I’m here. When it comes to opportunity, Don’t ask yourself “why?”, ask yourself “what?”. What can I do with that opportunity.

Take advantage of your opportunities, blaze your meandering path. Embrace the curves and bends, the loops, whatever your path might include. Those meanders will be the fond stories that you remember later in life. The key is to be able to see your opportunities and to take advantage of them to keep moving.

The second stage of Opportunity: Provide Opportunity to others

As I have already mentioned, you all will always have the benefit of opportunity for yourself, you just need to find it and be willing to accept it. However, many others are not as fortunate as you. You do not need to travel far from this beautiful campus to prove that. As you travel your path and search for your opportunities, always walk that path with empathy for those around.

Opportunity is not something that you can hoard. Opportunity does not multiply and receive compound interest because you store it in a safe place for yourself. Opportunity is fleeting and will most certainly vanish like smoke in a strong wind. 

Strive to become a dealer of opportunity. Dealing opportunity enables you to build a supportive and collaborative network around yourself.

Doing the impossible is not easy. But I like to say that If it was easy, it would already be done. Developing approaches to perform the impossible requires complex, multi-discipline, problem solving. You need different lines of thinking, which requires you to encourage diversity. Surrounding yourself with folks who think like you, who look like you, who come from the same place as you is not a good approach to performing the impossible. You must encourage creativity, innovation, and all the other cliché synonyms that fit here. You can’t do the impossible alone, or without sharing opportunity and nurturing diversity.

There is a reason that prior to a launch the flight director does a systems call for “go” or “no-go”. Any one of those folks coming at the problem from completely different lines of thought can scrub the launch. One opinion is not more valuable than another. And even if 99% of the rest of the team thinks the same way, the one contrarian voice can still hold the launch. We receive training on the damaging effects of Institutional Silence, basically group think that stifles diverse thinking. Our examples are well known to our NASA family, because our friends lost their lives onboard the Challenger and Columbia as a result of allowing group think to stifle diverse thought.

One of the hardest things you must be able to do in order to share opportunity is to become comfortable with yourself. Understand and accept your own weaknesses.

Don’t just accept, but own your weaknesses. Then build teams that complement your weaknesses and teams that complement each other’s weaknesses. Together, that team is strong because weaknesses are minimized across the group.

Too often, a human response to recognizing one’s own weaknesses is an attempt to hold others back so that they can’t take advantage of those weaknesses. If you spend all of your time holding others back, you will stop moving forward as well.

Early in my career, I always felt like the senior members of the community had it all figured out. They were well established, well versed in the norms that are needed for success, and I needed to learn those norms, live up to those expectations. However, I want to let you in on a little secret. None of us has any clue what we are doing out here in the world. Not one of us. We’re all making it up as we go along. If you want to do the impossible, you will have to make it all up as you go along too. You did exactly that nearly 4 years ago when you started your second semester at Franklin & Marshall. You know how to do this, perhaps better than anybody else before you.

Over time I began meeting those folks whose names I quoted on all the seminal papers, the leaders in the fields. And before long I was working with them. What I learned was that no matter how well established they are, they are also facing uncertainty every day.

The senior members out there are just as nervous as you, just as uncertain about where their path might lead. The world is ever evolving no matter how much we resist it with our rules, our norms, our traditions. What was certain yesterday, is less so today. Change can be hard to deal with, it’s why it’s difficult to take advantage of your opportunities. It is even harder to deal with if you are already well established in the prior norms. This is why progress is often resisted so strongly.

That was when I began to realize my value. My recommendation to you is to never underestimate your value. Even when they try to convince you that your value is small, insignificant, or even non-existent. They know that you are uncertain, and maybe that you don’t yet realize that they are uncertain as well..

Never underestimate your value. Many well established members of the community are concerned about losing touch with the way things are done now, with being overcome by your approaches, by being replaced by your system that they don’t understand. In short, your value could be a threat, any negativity towards you is likely based in fear. 

Here is the thing, maybe we can try to perpetuate a world that isn’t motivated by fear. Isn’t designed to hold others down to protect against our weaknesses. Build a world that is open to spreading opportunity instead of hiding or hoarding it. Finds ways to complement weaknesses with strengths. Perhaps your generation is the one to finally build a world based on acceptance and inclusion. And I think that means spreading opportunity widely, to those who can use it, and especially to those who need it most. You have no idea how that opportunity given will return opportunity to you later.

You might control the opportunity, but you don’t need to hang your nametag on the front of it. You don’t need to ask others to pat you on the back for it. The people I respect the most in our workforce are the ones who hand out accolades to their colleagues, not claim team victory for themselves.

Neil Armstrong is the closest person to royalty that we have in the NASA family. This person was the first human to walk on the Moon. He most certainly had every right to accolades. I never had the chance to meet Neil but his impact on others around him is well documented. One consistently stated attribute about him is that no matter what the topic was about, he always made the other person feel like the most important person in the conversation. The first person to walk on the Moon consistently made everyone else feel more important, more exciting. Opportunity can be small, it can simply be helping others to find their value or helping the rest of the world to see that value.

Strive to become a dealer of opportunity.

The third stage of Opportunity: Nurture the Opportunity that you give

The tricky thing about opportunity is that you don’t simply give out an opportunity and the job is done. Providing opportunity requires strong leadership to nurture it. If you are a dealer of opportunity you must also accept the responsibility of being a mentor.

As I mentioned, I grew up in the farm country south of here and one thing I remember from farming is that you can’t just toss some seeds out with the weeds. True, you’ve given those seeds an opportunity to grow, but you shouldn’t’ be patting yourself on the back. To truly give those seeds a chance to use that opportunity you must cultivate the landscape, remove the weeds, and create a nurturing environment so that those seeds might grow. Opportunity for people is no different.

Providing opportunity does not only mean handing out jobs and internships. I often like to say that you can learn science from a book, but you learn how to be a scientist from a mentor. How to navigate the world of funding, how deal with the politics, how to apply for jobs, how to write letters of recommendations, how to give commencement speeches. These lessons come not in the classroom but in the form of advice and experience. Seek out mentors, and never hesitate to become one yourself.

Taking care of your students in and out of the classroom. Give your students the confidence to go forward.

Giving the opportunity often requires creating space for that opportunity to grow. When you see an early career person in the meeting, don’t hesitate to offer them your seat at the table. If you are established, your voice will be heard from the seats on the margin of the room. Ask for each and every person’s opinion in the discussion. If they are in the room, there is a reason, somebody values their opinion. You should too. Make sure every voice is heard.

Sounds simple, right? However, as I have said, these things are rarely comfortable. Hearing all the voices often means that you must silence micro-aggressions. Micro- aggressions are small, nearly imperceptible actions towards someone with the intention of silencing their voice. I say nearly imperceptible because you know what I’m talking about. That thing the one person said that made you feel awkward, and maybe made somebody feel like they shouldn’t speak up.

Shut that down 100%. Do not tolerate that. You may as well give a newborn duckling the opportunity to grow among a pack of starving wolves. Bullies use micro-aggressions to uphold norms, expectations, tradition and heritage. Bullies often band together, and if you remain silent, you are a part of the bullying too. Don’t be one of the bullies. Make sure every voice is heard.

Successful teams depend on diversity, and healthy diversity depends on leaders who defend it constantly.

You must nurture the opportunity that you give.

I have shared with you my three stages of opportunity, 1) take advantage of opportunity for yourself, 2) deal opportunity to others, and 3) nurture the opportunity that you give.

My challenge to you is use the stages of opportunity to build a better world.

Here are a few last cliché’s about how to do that.

I’m trying to place your class in the context of what I remember from when you were children. I’m guessing that when you were young you were at least aware of Pokemon.

What I remember of pokemon the game was a drive to collect the super rare cards. In fact most games like Pokemon involve some form of high value based on uniqueness or rarity. Sports cards, comic books they are all the same. We invented a product that we collect for which uniqueness is a positive attribute. In sports we love to cheer for the underdog. Not because we enjoy losing, but because we love the opportunity for the rare moment when that group breaks the normal trends and wins against all traditional odds. When I help run geology boot camp for NASA Engineers, Managers and Astronauts there is one specific lava flow that possesses large crystals, nearly as big as my thumb. Without a doubt our participants in that training choose that rock as their favorite because it is to them, extremely unique and rare, diverse compared to the others.

As far as I can tell, in nearly every single human made classification system or scheme, we celebrate and covet the unique, the rare, the diverse. I can not think of a single reason why we should treat each other any different.

Do not fear uniqueness. Embrace diversity.

Do not confuse my statements about any of these endeavors as meaning that they are easy. They are not. None of them are. And you will not succeed at them every day. You simply will not. You will fail, you will fall short, you will not do good enough. And that is ok. Don’t be afraid to lean on others and ask for help. This is why it’s important to nurture and develop a community of kind people. The person you encouraged a decade ago could be the shoulder you lean on when you lost your fight of the day. They might very well give you the opportunity to prop yourself up when you need it. You must understand that the strongest among us needs a shoulder to lean on from time to time. Opportunity comes in many forms and is never a one way street.

If I may drop one more cliche on you. Smile. Smile often. You will find that it is much easier to smile at the world when the world is smiling back at you. It is the exact same way for that person standing in front of you, no matter what they look like, where they come from. Don’t be afraid to smile first. Smile and enjoy the world smiling back at you.

As F&M grads you will have opportunity The world is a tough place, and your path will proceed through rough patches. I’ve challenged you to build a better world. How? How do you go about that? There are so many aspects that need improved, and the norms, traditions and heritage will resist every change that you try to make. Well, you can’t do everything. But you can do something. To be a hero does not require you to be a hero to many. Start with a single relationship. Smile at someone who is frowning at you today. Tomorrow, they might smile at you, but even more importantly, they might smile at somebody else who needs it. One small pebble can send ripples across an entire lake, and so can your positivity, your opportunity send ripples across the world. In whatever aspect of the world you choose to focus, never consider the word impossible to be an end state, it is a challenge from the world. Go do your impossible.

Use your opportunity to better the world for yourself.

Spread opportunity widely to better the world for others around you.

Defend diversity to ensure that those opportunities can be used to better the world for all of us.

Once again, I challenge you to accept both your diploma and the responsibility that comes with it.

You, class of 2023, are more uniquely experienced than perhaps any of your predecessors, to thrive in a world outside the norms and tradition of the past. I am absolutely thrilled to meet you out here someday soon and I look forward to handing over the reigns of this world to your generation. I have absolute faith in you. I can’t wait to see what kind of a better world you will build through your opportunity.

So go land on your Moon, whatever that might be. Godspeed to you all, and I look forward to living in the world that you will build.

Commencement Remarks by Keynote Speaker Jacob E. Bleacher, Ph.D., '00

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