Auburn alumnus, NASA executive shares message of community at summer graduation

Published: August 06, 2016
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Auburn alumnus Todd May '90 took Auburn's 2016 summer graduates on an imaginary space trip back in time during his commencement address Saturday, Aug. 6, at Auburn Arena.

May, director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, shared a message of community and family to the more than 1,200 new alumni of Auburn University – a message that he wrote to be meaningful because of its utility for years to come after receiving their diplomas.

"That degree is a labor of love," he said. "That piece of paper is a total for the whole of your experience at Auburn. It's the spiritual symbol of the knowledge, the relationships and the character you gained over the last four, or five or six, years and the work you put in to gain it."

He charged the graduates to see their degrees as a guiding template for their lives and careers.

"All the fundamental elements needed to build the molecule of college experience – work and fun and love and community – are the same basic building blocks of your life and career after Auburn. I have no doubt that everyone here in this auditorium has the capacity to use this same formula to forge your own path to success, however you define success."

May said there was some advice he wished he had been given on his graduation day from Auburn in 1990, so he took the graduates on a space time travel mission back to that day so they could hear him give the advice to his younger self.

May remembers his former honors biology teacher Mrs. Jones and how she pushed him to do more in class. He now knows that's because she saw his potential which he didn't. Years later, when May was promoted to his current position with NASA, he received a letter from Mrs. Jones congratulating him on his success and telling him she had been following him and rooting him.

"She's been in your corner for years and you never saw it," he told his younger self. "So were your professors, and your parents, your wife and your friends. People believe in you even when you don't necessarily deserve it or believe in yourself."

The note from Mrs. Jones, May said, illuminated the road behind him and made him realize the value of the relationships he had formed throughout his life.

"I'm proud of what I've achieved at NASA and the greater good of our work but none of that has happened in a vacuum. There are people who care about each and every one of you. People who believe in your ability to succeed and people you, in turn, have affected," May said.

May cautioned that the biggest mistake graduates could make is failing to recognize and leverage the community around them.

"Wrong turns can become mere bumps in the road if you learn to see the system of support around you," he said.

For Auburn's most recent graduates, May said that support system is the Auburn Family.

"For many of you, it actually is very much an extended family," he said. "From your parents to the deans and professors and staff, your spouse, your closest friends. You counted on this family to support you and root you on. Outside of the Auburn community, the environment can feel very different – sometimes harsh and lonely. It's easy to feel that, even with the diploma in your hand, the game has changed – that the gradient between success and failure is somehow much steeper. And when you inevitably encounter tough challenges and even the sting of failure somewhere down the road, it may seem like you're on an island. I'm here to tell you you're not."