Astronaut and education advocate Dr. John B. Herrington, Commander in the U.S. Navy (retired), provided the commencement address to graduates of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. The ceremony was held at UNC’s Carmichael Arena on Saturday, May 9.
Dr. Herrington, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, was the first Native American in space. After serving as a Navy aviator and test pilot, he was selected for NASA’s astronaut training program. Among his activities at NASA was shuttle mission STS-113, during which he logged more than 330 hours in space and engaged in three spacewalks totaling nearly 20 hours outside the shuttle.
When he retired from the Navy and left NASA in 2005, he wondered whether he could find an “earthly” passion to inspire him as much as being an astronaut had. Dr. Herrington talked to the governor of the Chickasaw Nation, and an idea was formed.
Recognizing that Native Americans are the least represented minority in math and science, Dr. Herrington decided to ride a bicycle from Washington State to Florida, speaking along the way to Native communities about the benefits of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
Dr. Herrington subsequently earned his doctorate in education from the University of Idaho. His dissertation was titled Investigating the Factors that Motivate and Engage Native American Students in Math and Science on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation Following Participation in the NASA Summer of Innovation Program.
“While I miss the rigor and excitement of a space mission, I’ve found an opportunity to visit with and talk to students who are unsure about their opportunities,” he said. “Challenge is something we must all embrace – and I pass along my academic and professional experience in the hope that a student will become motivated to fulfill his or her own dreams.”
Two of the Gillings School’s most prestigious faculty awards also were presented during the spring commencement ceremony. Dr. Michael Hudgens, associate professor of biostatistics, received the McGavran Award for Excellence in Teaching, and Dr. Jennifer Smith, associate professor of epidemiology was presented with the John E. Larsh Jr. Award for Mentorship.
More than 350 undergraduate and graduate students and more than 35 members of the faculty and staff participated in the School’s commencement event.
Commencement speaker Dr. John Herrington is the brother of Dr. James Herrington, executive director of the Gillings School’s Gillings Global Gateway™. Read more about him here.
Read more about awardees Drs. Hudgens and Smith here.
Photos from the commencement ceremony and reception are available on Flickr.