Dr. Mae C. Jemison addresses Clemson University's convocation.

Dr. Mae C. Jemison addresses Clemson University’s convocation.

CLEMSON — Former NASA astronaut Dr. Mae C. Jemison gave the keynote address in Clemson University’s opening convocation as the school began its 124th academic year. Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel to space, flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in September 1992.

Jemison thanked the assembled faculty, staff and students for their time, something she said is one of the most valuable assets in college.

“As an undergraduate, you have a certain amount of time — usually four years — to get what you want to get done,” she said. “The reason why time is so important is because it’s the one truly irreplaceable commodity that we have. Time presents us with the fact that it is limited, but it has the opportunity to give unlimited possibilities.”

Jemison described her life growing up in Chicago in the 1960s, saying that as a girl she could see unlimited possibilities for herself through the turbulence of those times.

“I remember the National Guard walking behind my home in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The Democratic National Convention was in Chicago that year, and I remember being afraid for my father going to work that day,” she recalled.

“Yet, all around me I saw this explosion of new ideas and possibilities. Sometimes people talk about the ’60s as anarchy, but what strikes me about the ’60s was the belief that everyone could participate. People were declaring that they had a right to determine what was going on in the world. All around me was this world that was filled with ideas and actions and choices that would change the course of human history, and I wanted to be a part of it. I always assumed I would go into space.”

Today, similar turbulence and possibilities exist, she said, and improving general science literacy by teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is going to be a key to moving forward.

Clemson University President of Undergraduate Student Government Joey Wilson (orange jacket) gets a photo with Dr. Mae C. Jemison, the first woman of color in the world to go into space.

Clemson University President of Undergraduate Student Government Joey Wilson (orange jacket) gets a photo with Dr. Mae C. Jemison, the first woman of color in the world to go into space.
Image Credit: Ken Scar / Clemson University

“Today, we’re at a critical point in world history, where the best path forward is not necessarily clear,” she said. “And whether [we] drive to improve human quality of life in terms of economies, life expectancies, fast cars or fast food, the output of STEM fields is leading the way. It’s cutting a wide swath through our lives. It cuts that swath through our consumption, how we produce energy, the tools we build, health care, food, transportation, news, entertainment — you name it, [STEM] is there.”

Prior to joining NASA, Jemison was area Peace Corps medical officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia for two and a half years. A general practice doctor in Los Angeles, Jemison earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and the requirements for an A.B. degree in African and Afro-American Studies at Stanford University and her M.D. from Cornell University. She currently is leading 100 Year Starship (100YSS) an initiative seed-funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency to ensure the capability for human interstellar space travel to another star is possible within the next 100 years.

Clemson President James P. Clements also addressed the audience, touting some of the university’s major achievements of the summer, most notably the completion of The Will to Lead capital campaign.

“In July, I was thrilled to announce the completion of The Will to Lead capital campaign, which raised $1,062,528,346, making it the largest fundraising effort ever in the state of South Carolina,” said Clements. “It was also the largest goal ever achieved in a campaign by a university with an alumni base smaller than 150,000.”

The campaign’s results include 682 new scholarships, 13 professorships and 13 endowed chair positions. It also brought into existence some world-class facilities, such as the award-winning Watt Family Innovation Center and the Zucker Graduate Education Center at the Clemson University Restoration Institute in North Charleston.

Clements gave updates on activities to improve campus culture and climate: moving the Gantt Multicultural Center to bigger, more centrally located space in Brackett Hall; funding for student organizations, and implementing recommendations by the board of trustees History Task Force to more accurately convey the full history of the university.

“You will soon see some new signage in front of Tillman Hall, as well as a display inside, which will give a more detailed history of the building,” he said. “They have also been updating biographies of the university’s founders, which will soon be posted online.

Clemson leaders, faculty and staff pose with Dr. Mae C. Jemison.

Clemson leaders, faculty and staff pose with Dr. Mae C. Jemison.

“We are continuing to focus on recruiting and retaining a diverse student population, and we are making progress in that area. For example, the number of African-American students in this year’s incoming freshman class has increased 25 percent over last year’s incoming class. We are making progress, but we still have a lot of work to do, and it will take all of us working together to make Clemson a place where everyone feels valued and can succeed.”

Clemson’s new students include 5,100 freshmen and transfers from 46 states and two territories, as well as 40 different nations. There will be four Gates Millennium Scholars on campus and 110 high school valedictorians. The graduate school is welcoming 1,600 new students, including 11 Fulbright Scholars.

Jemison closed her remarks with a short lesson in physics. “My physics teacher in high school would hold up a ball and say, ‘This ball has potential energy. But it can’t do any work until it has kinetic energy. The only way it gets kinetic energy is by changing states — you have to drop it,’” she said, dropping an imaginary ball from her upraised hand. “I think this room is filled with potential energy. The only way we’re going to get to them is by changing the state we’re in now — by taking risks to do things that we didn’t know we could do. That is a role of a university: to challenge us and to make us go further than we could go alone.”