Stephanie Wilson, a NASA astronaut, urged a group of 221 Salem College graduates Saturday to find role models in their lives and also become mentors to other people.

“For if my generation has done its job correctly, we have served as mentors to your generation,” Wilson said. “Hopefully, as mentors we have taught you as we have learned how to establish a support network and which advice to heed and which advice to discard.”

Wilson told the students that they were blessed to attend Salem College.

“You have a chance to better your lives, the lives of your neighbors, the life of this country and the world,” Wilson said. “Live each day proudly and responsibly.”

Wilson was the keynote speaker at the Salem College commencement at the Joel Coliseum. More than 1,200 people, mostly family members and friends of the graduates, attended the ceremony. The graduates received bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Before her speech, Interim President Sandra Doran of Salem College presented Wilson and Christine Barnes Ritchie with the Salem Trailblazer Award, which the college has established to recognize women who have made contributions to benefit the world and charted a path for all women.

Richie, 89, is a graduate of North Carolina College at Durham, which is now known as N.C. Central University. She lives in Newport News, Va.

Richie, who didn’t attend the graduation ceremony, received the award for her work as a NASA computer programmer for three decades, Doran said.

Richie said in a video shown to the audience that she appreciated the award and that she was proud of her career.

“Most of us were just happy to have a job making a living, doing something that we like to do and felt competent doing,” Richie said.

Wilson, 52, is a veteran of three NASA space shuttle flights, according to her biography. She has spent more than 42 days in space.

A native of Boston, Wilson attended high school in Pittsfield, Mass., and received her bachelor’s degree in engineering from Harvard University in 1988, her biography says. After working at Martin Marietta Inc. for two years, she received her master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1992 from the University of Texas at Austin.

NASA selected her as an astronaut in April 1996, and she flew her first space shuttle mission in 2006, then flew subsequent shuttle missions in 2007 and 2010. Wilson has served as the Space Station Integration branch chief from 2010 to 2012, and she has also served as a member of the 2009, 2013 and 2017 astronaut selection boards.

Wilson told the graduates to use their skills and expertise to help society and to carefully choose their first job or graduate school. She also noted that the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing will occur on July 20.

“Your generation will be equipped with more tools for problem solving than any other generation,” Wilson said. “As you ponder your options, look for opportunities that are career broadening.”

Throughout her career, Wilson took advantage of opportunities to broaden her experience in aerospace engineering, she said. Wilson told the graduates that she was first rejected when she applied to become a NASA astronaut.

Wilson said she was eventually among 120 qualified candidates who were interviewed with NASA officials at Johnson Space Center in Houston, and she landed the job as an astronaut.

“The message there is that it may be difficult to achieve your goal, but please don’t give up at the first obstacle,” Wilson said as the crowd applauded.

After the ceremony, Jerotich Yegon, a native of Kenya who lives in Winston-Salem, said she became a U.S. citizen three weeks ago. Yegon received a bachelor’s degree in music from Salem College.

“It means everything to me,” Yegon said of her degree. “My mother has taught that humility will take you places, and arrogance will drive you to the grave.”

She plans to pursue a master’s degree in music business, possibly at Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tenn., Yegon said.

Julie Herrera of Houston received her bachelor’s degree in communications and creative writing. Herrera said she has an internship with Yes Prep Public Schools Inc. in Houston, and she wants to pursue a career in print or broadcast journalism.

“It was overwhelming,” Herrera said of her experience at Salem College. “As a first generation (college) student, I didn’t get much help from my family members.”

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