'Say yes' to opportunities that call to you, Lauretta tells graduates

graduates at commencement

The University of Arizona conferred about 8,000 degrees at the 158th Commencement on May 13. It was the first time since the start of the pandemic that all graduates came together in person to celebrate at Arizona Stadium.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

A three-letter word could be the key to a fulfilling career for the University of Arizona students who earned degrees Friday night.

That word, according to Dante Lauretta, leader of NASA's UArizona-led OSIRIS-REx asteroid return mission, is "yes."

Dante Lauretta

Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of NASA's UArizona-led OSIRIS-REx asteroid return mission, delivered the keynote address, telling students to "say yes" to unexpected opportunities in their upcoming careers. "You will know in your heart when such an opportunity presents itself," said Lauretta, a Regents Professor of Planetary Sciences.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

In his remarks to graduates and guests at the university's 158th Commencement at Arizona Stadium, Lauretta said a series of yeses led him to unexpected opportunities – and eventually to the helm of the United States' premier mission to collect a sample from a potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroid and bring that sample back to Earth.

While this year's graduates' journeys will look different from his, Lauretta said, they should still watch out for their own opportunities to say yes.

"You will know in your heart when such an opportunity presents itself," said Lauretta, who is a Regents Professor of Planetary Sciences at UArizona.

"When it crosses your path, take chances, take risks and say yes to the invitations that call to you," he said.

This year marked the first time since 2019 that all UArizona graduates came together to celebrate in person. Due to pandemic, the 2020 Commencement was held virtually, and the 2021 event was split into a series of smaller in-person ceremonies. This year also marked the first time the event was presented in the round at Arizona Stadium, with students seated around a stage at the center of the football field and guests seated on both sides of the stadium. In recent years, Commencement took place on a stage facing the east side of the stadium.

About 4,600 students and 36,000 guests attended the event, where university president Robert C. Robbins conferred about 8,000 degrees.

Before Lauretta's address, attendees heard remarks from Robbins, as well as Vice President of Enrollment Management and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Kasey Urquidez, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Liesl Folks, college deans, student-body leaders and other speakers.

"I know people always wonder, 'What does it mean to Bear Down?'" Robbins said, reminding the crowd of the challenges they've overcome to arrive at Commencement, including a global pandemic.

"I say your perseverance, your determination and your loyalty to your goals and dreams has shown the entire world what Bear Down means," Robbins said. "Bear Down – it's what Wildcats do."

Interspersed throughout Lauretta's speech, video clips showcasing OSIRIS-REx's biggest milestones played on the stadium's big screens. And before he shared tales of overcoming the monumental challenges that come with space exploration, Lauretta took graduates back to a time they could relate to a bit more.

Lauretta's first yes, he said, came one day in 1992, after a long shift as a short-order breakfast cook – before Lauretta, then a math, physics and East Asian studies major at UArizona, even knew planetary sciences was a discipline. He opened an issue of The Daily Wildcat, the university's student newspaper, to find a full-page ad emblazoned with, "Work for NASA." He applied and was accepted to NASA's Space Grant internship program, launching him into a career of yeses, he said.

The next significant yes, Lauretta said, came on a cool February morning in 2004. That morning, Lauretta, then an assistant professor, received a phone call from Michael J. Drake, then the director of the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and head of the Department of Planetary Sciences in the College of Science. Drake asked Lauretta to join him and some executives from the aerospace giant Lockheed Martin for drinks after work.

They wanted to discuss a partnership on a new space mission.

That mission was OSIRIS-REx, which would go on to launch in 2016, arrive at near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 2018 and collect a sample in 2020. Now on its return journey, it is expected to deliver the sample to Utah's West Desert in September 2023. The sample will likely yield fundamental knowledge about the origin of terrestrial planets and strategies to avoid potential asteroid impacts on Earth.

While the mission's successes are crystal-clear in hindsight, it was tough to say yes, at the time, to the opportunity that ended up defining his career, Lauretta told the graduates. Drawing up the mission plans and finding funding would be a monumental task, and it could all get canceled at any moment.

But he couldn't shake the notion that he could play a role in answering some of humanity's toughest questions: "Where did we come from?" "Are we alone in the universe?" The urge to help find those answers, he said, was too strong for him to say no.

Lauretta encouraged graduates to not overlook moments like these.


The event's finale included a fireworks show and music.

Kyle Mittan/University Communications

"On your journeys, remember that big things come from these small moments," he said. "I said yes to applying to the NASA Space Grant program. I said yes to joining Mike on the mission – even when it seemed like magic, like we were wizards trying to summon stones from outer space into our laboratories. By simply saying yes to what presented itself, I found myself at the helm of one of history's greatest scientific expeditions."

Lauretta urged the graduates to reflect on their time in college, imagine their paths ahead and understand that they are not alone. He asked them to take in their surroundings in the stadium – the breeze, the smells, the temperature – and to recognize that "this is your moment."

Even after graduation, they won't stop learning, he assured them.

"It will be the opportunities along the way that you say yes to, the diverse people you meet, the mentors you seek to support (you), the invitations you accept and the challenges you embrace that will lead you toward your destiny and provide for you a much deeper understanding of how it all comes together, how it all fits, just by saying yes," he said.

"Stop and take it all in," he added. "These are all the results of yes."

Student award winners, honorary degrees

During Friday's ceremony, seven graduating seniors were recognized for their outstanding achievements and contributions. The Provost Award went to Karen Jacquez (law); the Robie Gold Medals went to Lily Yu Lin McNair (nutritional sciences) and My Duyen Tran (molecular and cellular biology); the Robert Logan Nugent Awards went to Nizan Howard (information science and technology and linguistics) and Trevor Nolan Tankersley (biochemistry and physiology and medical sciences); and the Merrill P. Freeman Medals went to Bryce Galus (marketing and business management) and Anna-Rose Quinn (marketing and business management).

The following five honorary degrees also were awarded.

  • Nancy Berge, manager of Berge Ford, who has supported scholarships and endowed chairs at the university, along with her husband, Craig. (Doctor of Humane Letters from the College of Education)
  • Louva Dahozy, Diné knowledge holder, health educator, cultural teacher and voters' rights activist. (Doctor of Science from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)
  • Adalberto "Beto" Guerrero, a former UArizona faculty member, champion for Spanish-speaking students and namesake of the university's Adalberto and Ana Guerrero Student Center. (Doctor of Humane Letters from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences)
  • W. Kent McClelland, president and CEO of Shamrock Foods Company. (Doctor of Humane Letters from the Eller College of Management)
  • Joe Tremaine, an award-winning dancer, choreographer and educator. (Doctor of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts)

A  video of the ceremony is available to watch on YouTube.