CHAMPAIGN — Mother Nature cooperated in a major way Saturday to enable University of Illinois graduates and their families to enjoy the first outdoor graduation in more than 50 years.
UI officials estimated 17,000 people packed the west side of Memorial Stadium and part of the horseshoe to watch approximately 4,000 graduates mark a major life event.
The UI’s 143rd commencement was held there due to the remodeling of State Farm Center across the street, where graduation has been held since 1963.
Before being sent out in the world, the graduates were treated to warm, witty and wise words from a UI alumnus who recently made headlines and history by orbiting the Earth for six months.
Air Force Col. Mike Hopkins, a 1991 graduate of the College of Engineering, returned to Earth on March 10 after six months aboard the International Space Station with two Russian cosmonauts.
Hopkins said he was surprised by the invitation to be the commencement speaker, asking, “Are you sure?”
“I am more nervous standing here talking to you than I was stepping out of an air lock to walk in space,” said the husband and father of two sons. His family accompanied him Saturday.
If he was nervous, it didn’t show.
“This is the first time I’ve been at the 50-yard line since I played my last game here in 1991,” said the former Illini walk-on, who ended his football career as team captain at the John Hancock Bowl.
Hopkins wasn’t the only one struck by the vantage point. It also had special meaning for a proud father in the audience.
Tim Salem, special teams coordinator under UI football coach Tim Beckman for the last two years, snagged tickets to sit in the center section to watch his son Landan Salem, 22, receive his bachelor’s degree from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
“I picked the 50,” said Salem, who said he’s never been up in the stands of Memorial Stadium as a spectator.
His wife Wendy picked seat No. 14 to mark their son’s graduating class. And their daughter Kylan, who will be a junior in sports management in the fall, posed for smart phone pictures with a UI No. 14 football jersey that the family intended to give Landan.
Tim Salem, who’s at his eighth school in his 30-year football career, and his son had a bit of a connection with Hopkins, who was a special teams member while at the UI.
Salem said his son works in the UI football recruiting office and had the idea for Hopkins to announce the special teams award every week of the football season from space.
“And he did,” said Salem, who said the videotaped presentation was shared with the team.
Hopkins did a lot of communicating with students at his alma mater while he was above the Earth and started his 15-minute speech Saturday by giving a humorous narration of a typical day in space, accompanied by photos.
But he then ramped up the seriousness a bit by urging the graduates “not to confuse fame or popularity with professional success or personal achievement.”
“You have the power to define your success,” he said, explaining that it took him more than 10 years and four tries to be accepted to NASA’s astronaut training program. “I was turned down in 1998, 2000, and 2004. I figured I would just keep applying until I made it or NASA told me don’t bother.”
“You won’t find it if you let someone else dictate the rules for you,” he said of success.
He named famous alumni, including Nobel Prize winner John Bardeen, co-inventor of the transistor, and the late film critic Roger Ebert.
But he said there are more than 449,000 less famous alumni who are no less successful, such as social workers, nurses, art teachers and parents who put careers on hold to raise children. The latter was a nod to his wife Julie, also a 1991 UI grad.
“The size of your paycheck isn’t the measure of your achievement,” he said.
And he said no matter what the graduates choose to do with their futures, that “a little bit of Illinois will always be under it.”
“Jump at the chance to show your orange and blue pride,” he said, unzipping his gown to show off an orange Illinois T-shirt, drawing a cheer.
“Enjoy the ride,” he said.