Joan Higginbotham was nine or 10 when she snipped the colored wires on her brother’s transistor radio, launching her on a journey to discover her “it”—her life’s passion.
By college, Higginbotham knew she wanted to be an engineer. An internship at IBM between her freshman and sophomore years sealed the deal for where she wanted to work, too.
“I was 99 percent sure that I would work for IBM,” Higginbotham told University of New Orleans graduates during the Fall 2017 Commencement at UNO Lakefront Arena Tuesday. “The thing was, IBM was not hiring engineers; they were only hiring salespeople. And one thing I do know about me is that I am not cut out to sell.”
Then, NASA came calling.
Higginbotham, one of only three African-American women to have traveled to space, delivered a commencement address that urged graduates to surround themselves with good people who give honest and supportive feedback; to be prepared to take an interest in the opportunities that arise, however unexpected they may be; and to avoid devaluing their worth by comparing themselves with others.
Higginbotham described how her own career trajectory was shaped by a series of successes and disappointments that eventually led her to spend 12 days in space working on the International Space Station while on a 2006 Space Shuttle Discovery mission.
Each disappointment, she said, lead to self-discovery and opportunity.
“The ability to pick yourself and dust yourself off is a trait you must master,” Higginbotham said. “It will come in handy in life, in love and in your career, guaranteed.”
The message appeared to resound with those who were seated in blue robes and mortar boards as well as those who cheered them from the stands, snapping photos, raising signed and hollering for high-fives whenever a newly minted graduated neared.
In addition to awarding an honorary doctorate to Higginbotham, the University of New Orleans conferred roughly 800 degrees, including 24 doctoral degrees and about 244 master’s degrees during a ceremony that honored people who finished their degrees at the end of the summer semester as well as the fall.
Diane Lajoy, 54, and daughter Jenna Fricke, 33, were among those traversing the platform and posing for pictures.
Lajoy, a mother of five, had been working toward her college degree for years in between caring for her family. She officially met the requirements for an Interdisciplinary Studies degree in August, but knew she wanted to walk across that stage with Fricke.
Fricke graduated summa cum laude with a degree in anthropology. As she made her way back to her seat after receiving her diploma, she ran across the aisle to squeeze her mother. Together, they’d become the first in their family to graduate from college.
“We have to set the example we want our children to follow,” Lajoy said.
University of New Orleans President John Nicklow congratulated the graduates, requesting a few of them, including Fricke and Lajoy, to stand and be recognized.
Thomas Raleigh Harrington, chief of police for UNO, received his doctorate in urban studies. Treva Brown, winner of the Winifred Burks-Houck Graduate Leadership Award from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, received a doctorate in chemistry and has a job lined up with NASA at Stennis Space Center. Dennis Millner was awarded a bachelor’s degree in music, an accomplishment that comes almost 47 years after getting his first UNO degree in 1971.
“The University of New Orleans is as proud of you as your parents and friends,” Nicklow said. “Today’s program makes the end of long years of rigorous academic training, and the beginning of a transition to a different chapter in your lives…You understand what I mean when I say that education is transformational.”
Faculty and graduates exited the arena in a second line as a brass band played New Orleans standards. Some waved the white handkerchiefs that were placed in their seats--the ones that had the word "Alumni" written across them in blue.