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Commencement Speaker: Dr. Nancy Chanover ’87

It was a great pleasure to welcome back and honor Dr. Nancy Chanover, a graduate of the class of 1987, as the 2018 recipient of the Cushing Academy Leadership Award and as the keynote speaker for the Academy’s 143rd Commencement, which was held on Saturday, May 26. (Please scroll down for Dr. Chanover’s Commencement address.)
 
Established in 2010, the Cushing Academy Leadership Award honors exemplary leadership through personal and professional accomplishments and contributions to society. Dr. Chanover has achieved distinction in each of these realms, joining previous recipients including Meghan Duggan '06, Erika Lawler 05, John Cena '95, Will Day '89, and Dr. Shiva Saboori ’80.

The day included a mini-reunion with many of her teachers, including longtime and former Cushing faculty Judy Beams, Bob Johnson, Peggy Lee, Norm Carey, Joyce Ferris, Rich Devin, classmate Kristin Henry Walton '87, Nancy Chanover '87, Cheryl Storm, Bob Hall,  Rich Henry, Stewart Pierson. Members of the Alumni Council also joined the celebration, including Carolyn Marr '58, Val Bono' 97, and Roger Brooks '69, along with Brett Torrey '85, Director of Alumni and Parent Relations.
 
Dr. Chanover is a Professor of Astronomy at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. A native of Stony Brook, NY, she attended Cushing for three years. At her graduation, she was recognized both as the Valedictorian of her class and as the recipient of the Pliny A. Boyd '94 Award, known for highest character and ideals and greatest influence. One of her teachers wrote, “Not only is Nancy an outstanding student, but she is an outstanding person."
 
Dr. Chanover received her B.A. in Physics, with a minor in Astronomy, from Wellesley College. She then moved west for graduate studies, earning her Ph.D. in Astronomy from New Mexico State University, where she later received her M. A. in Education. In 2017, Dr. Chanover was named the Director of the 3.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory, which is owned and operated by a consortium of eight universities. 
 
Dr. Chanover’s research involves the study of planetary atmospheres. She has worked on projects involving the upper atmospheric chemistry of Venus; measuring wind speeds on Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn; and studying the atmospheric vertical structure of Jupiter, Saturn, and Titan. Her work has supported many NASA missions, and in 2016 she became the lead of the Atmospheres Node of NASA’s Planetary Data System, which is the national archive for all data from NASA’s planetary missions. Dr. Chanover's work in the development of new instrumentation for planetary science has recently led her into the exciting world of astrobiology, and she is currently working on the development of in situ instrumentation for the detection and characterization of biomarkers on planetary surfaces.  
 
Recognized for her innovative teaching and dedicated to mentorship of her students, she has generously skyped with Cushing's Astronomy Club over the years.  
 
Dr. Chanover's Penguin Nation roots also include her brother Michael Chanover, a member of the Class of 1989, and her mother Susan Ansara, who taught for many years in our Summer Session.
 
  • Click here for the graduation video. The presentation of the Leadership Award and Dr. Chanover’s speech begin at the 15:20 mark.
  • Below is a transcript of her address to the Class of 2018. 
 

Co-Heads of School Lee and Pollock, Members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished guests, Cushing Academy faculty and staff, parents, and… most of all… members of the class of 2018: thank you for this amazing honor, and thank you for the opportunity to be here and speak with you today.
 
As you just heard, this is actually the second time that I’ve stood before an audience at a Cushing Academy graduation ceremony.  Thirty-one years ago I stood before my peers and delivered a speech about…. I actually have no idea.  I remember doing it, I remember what the weather was like (it was hot like it is today!), but I have no idea what I said to my peers… what knowledge or wisdom I had hoped to impart to them.
 
Fast forward 31 years to two weeks ago, when I attended the spring graduation ceremony at New Mexico State University, where I work as an astronomy professor.  The truth is, I am a graduation junkie. I love going to graduation at NMSU to celebrate the achievements of our students.  Every one of them, just like probably every one of you, has struggled at some point on their journey.  It could be an academic struggle like failing a chemistry exam, or it could be an internal struggle like battling anxiety or depression.  But when graduation day comes, there is an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment.  I came from a world - here - where the question wasn’t if you would go to college, but where you would go to college.  Many of my students at NMSU are first-generation college students, and their parents, siblings, grandparents, and extended families crowd into the NMSU events center to cheer on the graduates. It is a truly rewarding experience, particularly as an educator, to celebrate this milestone in the lives of my students, and I believe this to be a universal truth.  Graduations of any kind are cause for celebration: of achievements, perseverance, and the opening of a new chapter.
 
But getting back to two weeks ago.  The truth is, I have no idea what the commencement speaker spoke about at NMSU.  So I have no illusions that what I say here today will have a long-lasting impression on you.  So rather than trying to teach you some profound “Life Lessons” today, I’d like to take a few moments to reflect on what impact my Cushing education had on me and to share some thoughts about what your future self might say to you if given the opportunity.
 
As you heard earlier, I am a professional astronomer.  I get to study the UNIVERSE, and get paid for it!  When I take a step back and think about it that way, I realize how fortunate I am to be able to pursue such an exciting field for my career.  My specialization is in the area of planetary science, and a lot of my planetary colleagues would tell you that their early source of inspiration and motivation was Carl Sagan and his Cosmos series that aired on PBS in 1980 (for you students, he’s like an older version of Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson - ha).  They would say, “yeah, I can remember watching Cosmos as a kid and I’ve loved astronomy ever since.”  For me, I came to the field of astronomy much later.  And most people don’t know this, but it was here, at Cushing, where I got my first taste of astronomy.  My physics teacher senior year, Stewart Pierson, would occasionally abandon whatever lesson related to inclined planes or springs or electromagnetism that he planned, and instead we would spend part of a class period talking about black holes or some other exotic astronomy thing.  I would come away from those classes thinking WHAT?  You can have something that is as massive as 50 Suns be shrunk down to a point so small that its gravity is so strong that even LIGHT cannot escape?  That’s CRAZY!!!  And so it began.  I went to college still convinced that I wanted to be a marine biologist, so I took an introductory biology course in the fall of my freshman year… and I hated it.  So in the spring of my freshman year, I went back to something I knew I would love - I took both Physics and Astronomy classes, and the rest is history.
 
Now that you’ve heard my story, let me offer a few perspectives and words of advice based on the experiences I’ve had since leaving Cushing.  The first one is something from the scientist in me, and that is that I want to encourage you all to think critically.  This is the number one lesson that I want students in my classes to come away with, whether or not they remember one iota of astronomy for the rest of their lives.  We live in a time when we are surrounded by SO much information - all the time.  We can’t escape it. Real news.  Fake news.  Scientific discoveries.  “Scientific discoveries.”  Learn how to tell the difference.  Not just because some astronomy professor told you to at graduation, but because it matters.  It matters because we want our planet to be around for many generations of people to come.  It matters because we want sick people to get well.  It matters because using critical thinking skills we can sift through the vast amounts of information now at our fingertips to make informed decisions about what foods we eat, what cars we drive, what causes we support, and what votes we cast. So arm yourselves with facts, trust the scientific process, examine your sources, and trust your gut.  Like if your college roommate tells you that NASA faked the Apollo lunar landings, and shows you a web site to prove it, something still might not seem right about that hypothesis.  In the words of Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
 
The second thing I would advise you is to say yes.  Lean in. Be flexible.

These are all buzzwords, book titles, catch phrases.  So what do I really mean?  Opportunities come along and you don’t even always know that you’re being faced with one. I’m talking about things like “would you like to work on this new project that we’re trying to get off the ground?” or “would you like to expand your skill set by working in this new area?”.  Say yes.  You might think “but I’m not exactly qualified for that” or “but I’ve never done that before.”  But guess what… everyone feels that way!  With very few exceptions, no one is ever completely prepared for their job.  If everyone else seems so together and you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, know that some people are just better at faking it than others.  You will be faced with new challenges throughout your career, and the important thing is that you are resourceful and clever enough to figure things out as you go.  I was never formally trained in the field of astrobiology, which is the search for life in the universe.  When I was in school that was considered to be a fringe topic that very few people actually worked in.  I never took a class in graduate school called Observatory Directors 101, or Data Archive Management for Dummies.  But saying yes to these exciting opportunities has led me down some of the most rewarding paths of my career: for example, testing a little instrument I built… in a cave… in Mexico… wearing a gas mask… funded by the National Geographic.
 
This notion of saying yes and being flexible is particularly relevant given the times we live in today.  According to a 2017 report commissioned by Dell Technologies and written by the Institute for the Future, 85 percent of the jobs in 2030 - that’s only 12 years from now! - have not been invented yet.  So by definition you are going to have to be flexible, since you don’t even know what you’re preparing for yet.  A statement from Dell Technologies summed up the situation by saying “The ability to gain new knowledge will be more valuable than the knowledge itself.”
 
Finally, be kind, and pay it forward.  This is a lesson that I have learned by watching my students at NMSU.  They are amazingly kind.  I don’t mean that everyone is perfectly nice all the time, and certainly college student drama abounds like on any university campus, but they demonstrate tolerance and compassion for each other in ways that I am continuously amazed at.  Everyone has their stuff - call it baggage, or struggles, or whatever - which we generally don’t see as we interact with people throughout our daily lives.  Everyone also has their own definitions of success, which may be different than yours.  For some people success might mean getting out of bed every morning.  For others it might be owning a small business, or hiking the Appalachian Trail.  So rather than judging people through our own definitions of success, let’s meet others where they are and help them to achieve THEIR successes.  The thing about kindness is that you don’t even know… at the time when you are doing something kind…. what sort of impact it might have on a person.  You may find out immediately, you may find out 5 years later, or you may never know.  But by showing someone - your peer, your boss, your employee, a stranger - that act of kindness, you are helping a fellow human being get through their experience - despite their internal “stuff” - just as others have helped you.
 
But in addition to paying it forward, it’s important to look back, to reflect on and be thankful for where we’ve been.  Cushing is not only the place where I discovered my passion for astronomy.  It is also the place where I met my best friend.  It is where I got my driver’s license.  It is where I learned how to persevere through pain and misery (climbing uphill at Wachusett Mountain during ski team practice, because it was “faster than the chairlift”).  It is where I learned how to study, and it is where I learned how to learn.  I didn’t know it or appreciate it at the time, but guess what… all of the things that your teachers have been doing with you here?  They have not just been preparing you for college, they have been preparing you to be life-long learners.  There will be other institutions that are important in your life.  Other academic institutions. Charities. A national park. A place of faith. A neighborhood coffee shop.  All of these places have meaning to us because of the events or feelings that we attach to those places or organizations.  Repay that meaning in whatever way you can, be it volunteering your time, spreading the word, supporting a local business, or donating funds.  Help those places remain strong so that they can continue to provide meaning to other people like you in the future.
 
OK, so to recap… because as I mentioned… these speeches are short-lived in our collective memories (although maybe less so now that YouTube exists, which thank goodness it didn’t in 1987!)
 
1)       Graduation is AWESOME.  It is the culmination of a huge amount of work, and it is something that everyone here today should be immensely proud of.  I am so honored to be here to share it with you.
2)       The education that I received here at Cushing had a direct influence on my career path.  That’s a pretty profound statement, and I expect that many of you will be able to say the same thing when you look back on this day 31 years from now.
3)       Think critically.  Learn how to distinguish science from pseudoscience, which is stuff that sounds sciencey but actually isn’t. (find me later if you want to know more about how to tell the difference)
4)       Say yes to new opportunities.  No one is ever truly prepared for everything they are asked to do, and those things that you feel totally unprepared for may end up being the most rewarding.
5)       Be kind and pay it forward.  Everyone has their own definitions of success, and the point isn’t to compare ourselves to others using the same criteria, but to help our fellow humans achieve their successes.
6)       Don’t forget to pay it backward.  If I could sum all of this up in one sentence it would be this: Speak with your brain, and act with your heart.
 
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to conclude with one micro astronomy lesson.  So maybe most of you heard that the US Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey team - whose team Captain Meghan Duggan is a Cushing alum, won the gold medal in PyeongChang?  Well, where do you think that gold came from?  You might say…. it was dredged up from a gold mine (I’ve seen that Gold Rush show on the Discovery Channel… I know how that works).  But where did the gold trapped below the Earth’s surface actually COME from?  It turns out that the gold that is in those Olympic medals, the ones fought so hard for by Meghan and her teammates, came from previous generations of massive stars in our galaxy.  A very recent discovery - like within the last year - revealed that most of the gold in the universe was created through a very violent process whereby two extremely massive stars that have collapsed down to be super dense small compact objects about the size of a city block, collide, resulting in an unimaginable explosion.  This explosion is what creates heavy elements like gold and spews them out into space, providing the raw materials out of which new planets like Earth can form.  I can’t wait to see what gifts the universe holds in store for you.
 
Thank you, and congratulations to the Class of 2018!
 
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Cushing Academy

Cushing Academy exists for students and develops curious, creative, and confident learners and leaders. Founded in 1865, Cushing is a co-ed, college preparatory boarding and day school for students in grades 9-12 and PG. Our students, who come from over 30 states and 30 countries, excel in our outstanding academic, art, and athletic offerings. We welcome you to visit our community and beautiful 162-acre campus in Ashburnham, Mass., just one hour from Boston, to experience all that Cushing has to offer.

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