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  • Class of 2010
    Credit: Courtesy of Billy Youngblood.
  • Charles Bolden
    Credit: Courtesy of Mike Rogers.
  • Graduates before the ceremony.
    Credit: Courtesy of Debbi K. Swanson Patrick.
06/11/2010 07:00:00

Caltech's Class of 2010 Takes Flight

Overcast skies couldn't dampen spirits as the California Institute of Technology held its 116th annual commencement on June 11.  With family, friends, mentors, and professors in attendance, 491 graduates received their diplomas from President Jean-Lou Chameau. One hundred ninety-two students were awarded the B.S. degree; 118 students the M.S. degree; 2 scholars the degree of Engineer; and 179 doctoral candidates the Ph.D. degree.

Caltech commencements often serve to celebrate both Caltech and the sunny Southern California lifestyle. If the weather put a bit of a damper on that second element this year, a gentle Caltech prank brought added color into the gray day when nearly all the graduating seniors appeared sporting brightly colored sashes over their graduation gowns.

An illustrated flyer advised attendees that those dressed entirely in traditional black were "normal" graduates, who had "completed all requirements," and that anyone in a white scarf had enjoyed "unusual success in dating." Graduates accessorized in gold allegedly belonged to the most "prestigious" undergraduate house (tactfully left undesignated), and the sizeable coterie wearing red was said to have "failed to complete requirements" and allowed to graduate "out of pity."

Caltech sent its graduates forward to the future with a commencement speech by a man whose career epitomizes the spirit of futuristic inquiry and exploration—Charles F. Bolden, the 12th administrator of the National Aeronauatics and Space Administration. A member of NASA's astronaut corps from 1980 to 1994 and the first astronaut to speak at a Caltech commencement, Bolden flew aboard the space shuttle four times, logging more than 680 hours in Earth orbit. He piloted the 1990 mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope and set a record shuttle altitude of 400 nautical miles. He later commanded both the first Spacelab mission dedicated to NASA's Mission to Planet Earth (1992) and the historic first joint U.S.–Russian shuttle flight (1994).

Charles Bolden
Credit: Courtesy of Mike Rogers.

In his remarks, NASA's chief administrator reminded Caltech's graduating class of the connection he shares with them through the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the nerve center of America's program of robotic space exploration, which originated at Caltech in the 1940s and which Caltech has managed for NASA for decades. He spoke about the directions in which science and technology have evolved, in space studies and numerous other arenas, over the last century. The result, said Bolden, are discoveries and innovations that would have been considered inconceivable only a few decades ago. He urged his listeners to follow the example set by many of their inventive and farsighted predecessors, who "put their education to use in service to the nation."

Fifty years ago next year, said Bolden, President John F. Kennedy launched America's manned space program with a now-iconic speech that committed the United States to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. Reflecting on the successful achievement of that goal, said Bolden, President Obama had recently posed a provocative question: Did the moon program signify a beginning or an end? Will humans "settle for life on this planet" or opt to continue exploring beyond it?

The answer, said Bolden, may well lie in the hands of this generation. He added that one of "you sitting here today may be the next person to travel across space" in a quest to explore other planets.

However the new graduates take flight, Bolden told them, their education "must not end here today." He spoke of how his long career in the United States Marine Corps, where he rose to the rank of major general, had taught him the values of honor, commitment, and courage, especially "the courage that is not visible but moral, the courage to do what you know to be right." 

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Graduates before the ceremony.
Credit: Courtesy of Debbi K. Swanson Patrick.

To these qualities, said Bolden, he would add humility, and he invoked the memory and example of Nkosi Johnson, a South African boy who died of AIDS at the age of 12. On his deathbed, the boy reportedly said that his illness had taught him to "do all you can with what you have, in the time you have, in the place you are." Those words, said Bolden, in a voice choked with emotion, are "the best advice I can give you."

In his charge to the graduates, delivered at the ceremony's conclusion, President Jean-Lou Chameau reminded the class of 2010 that with great gifts come great responsibilities. "I often describe Caltech as a place where people dream with focus and freedom," said Caltech's president. "Hard work, persistence, intellectual honesty, and rigorous trial and error coupled with the creative genius to think without restraint—that is the spirit of Caltech.

"That Caltech spirit is now part of each of you, and I want you to go out and share it with the world. . . . There is no limit to what you can accomplish."

Outlining major challenges of the day, including the need to harness clean energy, develop green economies, promote robust technology transfer, and furnish young people with an education that will enable them to thrive in the 21st century, Chameau said, "That sounds like a lot to tackle, but when I reflect on what you have accomplished during your time here, I believe you are among the best-equipped people in the world to take on these challenges.

"And wherever your exciting travels and many successes take you—and there will be many—I want you to remember that you always have a home here at Caltech."

That Caltech home celebrates a centennial this month, as this year's ceremony coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Institute's move to its current location, signified by the dedication of the first campus building, Throop Hall, in June 1910. Today its location is marked by Throop Site, a pastoral and popular campus spot, highlighted by a pond and boulders representing two billion years of history, selected from the nearby San Gabriel Mountains by Caltech geologists. Ducks roost at the site each winter to raise young, and a snowy egret flies in every spring before heading off for parts unknown—fitting emblems for the newest generation of Caltech graduates just spreading their wings. 

Written by Heidi Aspaturian