Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly (Photo by Karl Rabe)
Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly (Photo by Karl Rabe)

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Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly Address Bard Graduates

Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, retired space shuttle Commander Mark Kelly, give the commencement address at Bard College on May 25, 2013.

Mark Kelly:

Good morning, everybody. Thank you, Leon. I actually think we look similar enough where I think you would look great in this uniform. Esteemed faculty, board members, students—especially those receiving your degree today—and parents, thank you. Thank you for inviting Gabby and me here today. And thank you for welcoming Gabby into your Bard College community with an honorary degree. You know, it’s a pleasure to be here with you on this beautiful campus—despite the little cold and a little bit or rain for you guys out there not under the tent—as spring turns to summer, we hope, and as you all consider what’s next for you.

You know, Gabby and I have come to know Bard through our good friend and colleague, and your fellow alum, Pia Carusone ’03. She has been an instrumental part of our lives for over four years now and through our time together, we have learned a lot about Bard College and your bold and courageous endeavors. You know, Bard is leading on the critical issues of our time and for that all of you should be really proud of the degrees you are about to receive.

It is an exciting time, when you have the opportunity to celebrate all that you’ve accomplished. You are all at a crossroads, where your destiny has not yet been decided and you are free to set some really ambitious goals. However, having gotten through four years of a grueling education at Bard and grinding out the finishing touches on your Senior Project, maybe you feel like you should pass on ambition for a while. Maybe you’re tired of trying. Maybe you’re scared that you’ll fail and end up living with your parents for the next 10 years. Wouldn’t that suck? Maybe you’re thinking of settling instead of aiming to succeed.

So, for the next few minutes or so, forget all about that. Today, I want you to set your sights high, and I want to tell you a little bit about how Gabby and I ended up where we are today. I want you to think about determination and courage. And I want you to think about second chances.

Now I almost didn’t make it to where you’re sitting today. Unlike my wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, whom you’ll hear from shortly, I didn’t really excel at school from the very beginning. I grew up not more than a few hours away from here, in a place called West Orange, New Jersey. People from West Orange here? My mom and dad were cops, police officers. My twin brother Scott, who also ended up becoming an astronaut, and I are not what you would describe as model students. I don’t think I would have gotten into Bard. In fact, sometimes all I could do was to try to stay in school.

My dad did not want us to become police officers. But he didn’t see us going to college, either—and who could really blame him? We didn’t act like we were thinking much about our futures! And so my dad did what seemed was best to him and that was, instead of college, and instead of the police force, my dad recommended that my brother and I become welders. And, he even offered to get us into the ironworkers union. 

So, you know often we hear these stories, almost fables about astronauts. The golden boys, the whiz kids, the chosen ones. Well, my brother Scott and I? We weren’t that. But my dad had to show me that he thought the future might hold something better for us, and that we needed to choose our own path. So, I worked hard my last years of high school, and, finally, I did make it to college. 

While I was at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island, determination really set in for me, and I did set some pretty bold and ambitious goals. I set my sights on becoming an astronaut, and I set my sights on being the first person to walk on the planet Mars. Well, I didn’t get there. You know I did not technically reach that very goal, but I did make it into space four times. Now if any of you think that’s impressive, making it into space four times, just think of how impressed the aliens were. When I told them that I have been to the planet Earth five times, they were quite impressed. So how did I get there?

Well, I graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1986. That was the year that the movie Top Gun came out. And, I headed off to flight school at Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida. Well, I kind of embarrassed to say this, but, literally, as I drove the gate of Naval Air Station, Pensacola, I had that cheesy music from the movie playing on the tape deck. I think it was the “Danger Zone” song. And get this, I get there and I start flying, and I very quickly realized that I am not “Maverick.” I’m not a particularly good pilot. I really struggled for a long period of time. I could barely figure out how to land the airplane on a runway. And, after about a year, I had to go out and land on an aircraft carrier for the first time. Now, when the Navy sends you to land on a ship for the first time, there’s no one who’s dumb enough to go with you. It’s just you, all by yourself, whatever skills you’ve been able to put together from a lot of practice—in my case it wasn’t all that much. On a morning much like today in Florida, I had to fly off of Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, Florida, to find the USS Forrestal, aircraft carrier. And it seemed like we were going out into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—we were really only about 50 miles off shore. Eventually, I come across this ship, and it looked like a tiny little postage stamp, bobbing in the ocean. I do my first two what’s called touch-and-go landings, where I just touch the deck and take off again. Then I put the tailhook down, the arresting hook, land in the wires, come to a complete stop. At that point, the entire experience was just a blur. I barely remember any of it. But, I do these arrested landings, and, between each one, I have to go to catapult, get shot off from 0 to 150 knots in a couple of seconds. And, I do these four landings and then I go back to the shore that night, and, eventually, that evening, I get debriefed by the instructor pilot who had been watching me from the back of the ship. And, you know the first thing he says to me is, “Are you sure this career is for you?” He says, “You are not a particularly good pilot.” You know, I really did bad; I actually think Tom Cruise would have been better—and I don’t mean the character from the movie, I mean the actor. Tom Cruise probably would have been better at that then me.

But, you know what, I didn’t give up, and the guys that did really well that day did not go on to become test pilots or astronauts.  How good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indicator of how good you can become. I’m a prime example of somebody who was able to overcome a lack of aptitude with determination, persistence, and the drive to never, ever, ever give up.

Many of you have probably experienced some version of this yourself at Bard. Imagine the guts you needed, just a few years ago, when you had to stand up in front of that Moderation board (I think you call it that) and argue your case to your professors about why you belonged in the history department, or the biology department. You were not the person you are today; today you’re more knowledgeable, more refined, more experienced. But back then, you didn’t let your inexperience stop you. The old you could actually see the potential of the future you. And that vision gave you the determination and the will to make it happen. You made a decision to achieve instead of settle. Just like my vision of myself as an astronaut is what got me through flight school being a pretty lousy pilot.

So, as you embark on the next phase of your own lives and start new careers and new endeavors, please remember that I started out struggling in the beginning of my career and ended up commanding a rocket ship into space. So, today I am here to encourage to set some crazy and ambitious goals for yourselves. Like me, you may never exactly achieve those goals. I haven’t made it to Mars and I probably never will, but the journey was certainly worth the effort. And, I promise, the journey will be worth it for you as well.  

Along the way, there will be bumps in the road. So prepare yourself as best you can. And while I like to think of myself as generally a prepared and level-headed person—I know firsthand, there are no flight plans for life. This is where courage and second chances have to come in.

Two years ago, Gabby’s chief of staff and Bard alum Pia Carusone called me at home in Houston, Texas. Until recently, Gabby and I had one of those commuter marriages. I lived in Houston; she lived in Tucson and went to Washington, D.C., for work, to represent her constituents. We would catch up with each other on weekends either in Washington, Tucson, or Houston, and we often accompanied each other on work trips. Well, Pia called with life-changing news. Very simply, she said, “Mark, I don’t know how to tell you this, but Gabby’s been shot.” I knew she was at this routine meet-and-greet on the north side of Tucson, and Gabby’d had been hit, along with several other people. That was all Pia knew. Shortly after, we talked again and we found out that people had died, including her colleague Gabe Zimmerman, and a 9-year-old girl named Christina-Taylor Green. And we also found out that Gabby had been shot in the head.

Try to imagine that phone call. Pia was an experienced and accomplished congressional chief of staff and I had spent my career learning how to manage crises that we hope would never come at NASA—but nothing in either of our careers could have prepared us for that moment. Nothing could have prepared us for what was about to come next.

Know this: know that though I hope your life will be free of tragedy, I can assure you that it will bring you some unexpected and unpredictable moments, and it’s going to challenge you beyond what you can currently imagine. In those moments, when that happens, I encourage you to think about my wife, Gabby.

Gabby has always been an adventurer. After her graduation from Scripps College, she headed down to Chihuahua, Mexico, and lived with a Mennonite family as a Fulbright Scholar without any electricity or running water. Later, when her family needed her, she left this fancy job in New York City working in a skyscraper and drove her truck back home to Tucson, where she took over running the family’s tire business, which was a big risk, both personally and professionally, and one that she ultimately steered to success.

And Gabby had an equally ambitious and adventurous career in politics. She was elected six times, three to the Arizona State Legislature, and three to the Congress, and she represented her constituents in a similarly daring and authentic personal style. Gabby holds the titles of youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona State Senate and also Arizona’s first Jewish Congresswoman.

And Gabby was brave. In moments where the politics of her Republican-leaning district became hot and angry, Gabby stood by her principles. She never backed away from her commitment to women’s equality, finding a smarter energy policy, protecting our men and women in uniform, or many of the other issues that she fought so passionately for. When tough votes came, like the vote on health care reform, Gabby made them according to her values and what she truly believed was right for her constituents. And she listened. She took the stories of ranchers in her district, who were angry about the federal government, and brought those stories back to Washington. That’s why she was elected three times to a historically Republican district as a Democrat. That’s why she and Gabe Zimmerman, her outreach director who was killed on the day Gabby was shot, were in the parking lot that day.

You may have all seen dramatic moments from Gabby’s life on TV and in the newspapers, but trust me, there were even more brave moments that occurred privately.

After she was shot, Gabby had to rebuild. She had to grieve the lives that were lost and also come to terms with her new limitations. She had to learn to walk again, to eat, to type with her left hand, and to do those things that we all take for granted every single day, like even speaking. You can’t imagine the struggle of knowing exactly what you want to say, having all of your words on the tip of your tongue, and not being able to get them out. It is frustrating. I didn’t know courage and bravery until I saw what my wife went through. And it’s not over. Her determination is as strong today as it was in the moments after she was shot. Gabby can’t ride her motorcycle anymore, she can’t hike her favorite trails. She decided to step down from her congressional seat, so that she could focus full time on her recovery. None of this was easy.

But I always new that Gabby would reenter public life. It was just a matter of time before she would be moved to take action. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school last December, Gabby said what many of us said, “Enough!” What has been lacking is someone with the courage to not choose sides on this issue but to choose a new path, to add a new dimension to a debate that is flat and tired, somebody with the determination to see it through. Gabby is the moderate and determined voice that the movement for sensible gun legislation needs.

So we are doing what we think will be most impactful. And we are taking advantage of our second chance at service. Our new organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, stands for sensible and pragmatic steps that will keep our communities safer, but also protect our Second Amendment rights. We are gun owners. Gabby is a Westerner. In her core, she is a Westerner. She grew up near the border, in the dusty and wild desert, climbing those rugged mountains, and representing a district that includes Tombstone, Arizona, the town too tough to die. My folks were cops, and I served in the military for over 25 years. I flew in combat over Iraq and Kuwait. We have a strong tradition of guns, not in our pasts, but even in our lives now.

The conversation we stepped into is a conversation between extremes on either side. What we represent is something different—a huge majority of Americans, like us, believe in sensible solutions to this problem, like background checks, that will keep us safer but do not infringe on anybody’s right, like yours, to own a gun if you want to.

Gabby’s challenge now is to lead us forward and to bring as many people as possible with her. The gun lobby has years on us. The NRA’s been around for 150 years. They’ve forgotten what they used to stand for, which is gun safety and a tradition of hunting, and now they mostly stand for the gun manufacturers. And they make a LOT of money doing it.

We are the counterbalance to the professional gun lobby, a truly citizen-based, people-driven movement to reclaim this debate and find, in the great tradition of our democracy, moderate and pragmatic solutions that respect our American values of the right to bear arms and the right to safety—the right, to quote President (Franklin) Roosevelt, who grew up not far from here, I think, who said we all have the right to “freedom from fear.”

Gabby’s bravery shines bright. And it has been tested before. For me, she is literally redefining how I think about the word “courage.” She has set her sights on a distant horizon—a country that’s dramatically safer from gun violence, and she works hard to get there every single day. She does physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and even some yoga to make sure she’s in shape to get us there. It is as bold a dream as me landing on Mars, but she has a specific path.

And there are many doubters. Many who think the NRA and the rest of the gun lobby is simply too powerful. Many on the left who think that our deep and patriotic support of the Second Amendment, our belief that we can find common purpose between those who own guns and those who do not, will prevent us from making progress. Many who saw the failure of the United States Senate to pass background checks a few weeks ago, many of those people have thrown up their hands in anger and disgust.

Our friend and my hero, Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, remembers being amazed in 1961 when he heard President Kennedy say that we would get to the moon. Jim says he thought that was impossible. This is in 1961. Jim Lovell thought it would be impossible. Then, as some of you know, he went to the moon twice.

Jim says: “There are three types of people. There are people who make things happen, there are people who watch things happen, and there are people who wonder what happened. To be successful, you’ve got to be a person who makes things happen.”

Well, Gabby’s a person who makes things happen. And the Bard Class of 2013, all of you, I know will be people who will make things happen.

Like your classmate Raed Al-Abbasee, an Iraqi refugee and an already-published biochemist who has broken new ground since arriving from Baghdad.

Or Lauren Blaxter, a human rights major and leader of the Bard Palestine Youth Initiative, who is heading back to Palestine this summer to help construct a youth center.

Or Alexis Roe, the first member of the first class of graduating POSSE scholars who plans to teach English as a second language in China.

Or Deron Mack, who earned his Bard degree on the Eastern and Woodbourne prison campuses and will be walking across this stage with all of you today. What an accomplishment!

All of you have accomplished so much already. And as you move on to your life after Bard, I encourage you to be that person who makes things happen. Make incredible scientific discoveries. Make art that takes our breath away. Make music that transforms. Cook and create a community like Alice Waters. Make some apps that my daughter is going to have to explain to me. Make innovations in business that will change the world. Or maybe become Bard’s first astronaut and be that very first person who walks on the planet Mars because we all know it’s not going to be me.

You have invested a tremendous effort in getting this education. There are certainly schools that are easier than Bard, that don’t push you as hard, that coddle and care for you more. Now, one of our good friends and your Senator, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, is giving the commencement address at Vassar this weekend… 

As a graduate of Bard, as an educated and thoughtful person, you are expected to continue Bard’s tradition of service. You know this crazy world we live in needs your help. Our big problems crave bold solutions. We need more leaders in every walk of life that are determined to be exceptional, that have the courage to try, and fail, and then try again. And to have the morale courage to make the right choices, even when they are not popular choices. You know who that is? That is you!

And Gabby and I are living proof that the most bold thing you can think of—flying to outer space, or being elected to Congress—you all can achieve as well.

Now I know that some day soon, Gabby will be giving these speeches in their entirety. After all, it’s Gabby who is being welcomed as an honorary member of the Bard community and receiving an honorary degree, when I think that I’m just getting a T-shirt. If it were up to her, she would have you here all afternoon. She got that name Gabby for a reason. She is so excited to celebrate with you and to honor your hard work and your bright futures.

So now, on this day of possibility, a day when you celebrate everything you’ve accomplished, and on a day when you dream the big dreams, let me introduce you to the most determined and courageous person I know. A person who does not fear or even acknowledge failure, who takes joy in the pursuit of personal and political challenges, who speaks with extraordinary bravery, and who inspires me every single day: my lovely wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Gabrielle Giffords:

Thank you for honoring me here today, and thank you for this honor. Graduates, your future shines bright. Find your purpose and go for it. Starting tomorrow, you can change the world. The nation’s counting on you to create, to lead, to innovate. But today we celebrate you. Be bold, be creative, be your best. Thank you very much. Thank you.