Providence College Welcomes Dr. Mae Jemison: Former NASA Astronaut to Give Commencement Address

by The Cowl Editor on February 27, 2020


Dr. Jemison was the first woman of color and the 16th American woman to go into orbit. Photo courtesy of

by Kerry Torpey ’20 and Katherine Torok ’20

Editor-in-Chief and Associate Editor-in-Chief

On September 12, 1992, NASA astronaut Dr. Mae C. Jemison boarded the space shuttle Endeavour, beginning an eight-day journey during which she and six other crew members would make 127 orbits around the earth. Upon returning to earth and landing at the Kennedy Space Center, Jemison officially became the first woman of color to travel to space. Now, almost 28 years later, Jemison will visit the Providence College community as the speaker at our 102nd Commencement Ceremony.

Born in Decatur, AL to parents Charlie and Dorothy, Jemison developed a love for science, in particular astronomy, from a young age. While growing up and attending school in Chicago, Jemison says her parents, “were the best scientists [she] knew, because they were always asking questions.”

Jemison would spend hours watching and researching NASA’s Apollo missions, seeking to understand their goals, findings, and accomplishments, but she felt frustrated not seeing any female astronauts. Although Sally Ride was the first American woman to travel to space in 1983, Jemison would be the first woman of color. Having grown up watching Nichelle Nichols play Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, Jemison saw the potential of representation for women of color in space. 

Upon graduating from high school at 16, Jemison attended Stanford University, double majoring in chemical engineering and African and African-American studies. After graduating in 1977, she became a student at Cornell University Medical College, where she obtained her M.D. in 1981. While in medical school, Jemison studied and conducted research in Cuba and worked at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand.   

After moving to Los Angeles to be a general practitioner for the Los Angeles County Medical Center, Jemison began working with the Peace Corps. Between 1983-85, she served as the Area Peace Corps Medical Officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia. At the age of 27, she was responsible for managing healthcare for Peace Corps volunteers as well as the U.S. Embassy’s medical care.  

It was not until 1985, when Jemison was back in the U.S., that she decided to apply to become an astronaut. She says that when she first applied to the Johnson Space Center, she was not considering the fact that she may be the first African-American woman in space. “I wanted to go into space,” she explains. “I couldn’t have cared if there had been one thousand people in space before me or whether there had been none. I wanted to go.”

 Despite the devastating explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, Jemison continued to pursue her dream. Then, on June 4, 1987, Jemison became the first African-American woman admitted to NASA’s astronaut training program. She was one of only 15 chosen out of 2,000 applications. 

In preparing to depart for space, Jemison felt it was important to bring things that “represented people who sometimes are not included.” Some examples include: a poster of Judith Jamison performing the dance “Cry,” a Bundu statue to represent a women’s society in West Africa, and a flag for Alpha Kappa Alpha, “the oldest African-American women’s sorority in the United States.” 

When she departed as a crew member on Endeavour’s STS-47 Spacelab J mission, which was a collaborative mission between the U.S. and Japan, Jemison served as a science mission specialist. During her eight days in orbit, she conducted experiments on other crew members, testing levels of weightlessness, bone cells, and motion sickness. 

“For me,” Jemison says, “the experience was one that made me feel very connected to the universe. I felt my being was as much a part of this universe as any star, as any comet.” 

After completing the Endeavour mission, Jemison left NASA in March 1993, but her career had only just begun. In that same year, she founded The Jemison Group Inc., a technology consulting firm that encourages students to be passionate about science while merging sociocultural affairs with space engineering and technology. 

Then, as a devoted fan of the original Star Trek series, Jemison fulfilled every fan’s dream in 1993 when she guest- starred as Lieutenant Palmer in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, becoming the first real-life astronaut to appear in the series. 

In 1994, she started an international science camp for students aged 12 to 16 called “The Earth We Share” as well as a non-profit called the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, which she named after her mother.

Jemison has received several honorary doctorate awards and accolades, such as the Ebony Black Achievement Award and a Montgomery Fellowship from Dartmouth College, where she conducted a teaching fellowship. She is also an inductee at the National Women’s Hall of Fame, International Space Hall of Fame, and the National Medical Association Hall of Fame.

She has written multiple books, including her 2001 memoir Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments from My Life as well as several True Book series about different components of space expedition. In 2012, she led the 100 Year Starship program and received funding to enhance research in our ability to travel outside our solar system to another star within the next 100 years.

In 2017, LEGO released a figurine of Jemison as part of the LEGO Women of NASA Kit, which the company hoped would inspire more women in STEM, an initiative Jemison greatly supports. She also fluently speaks English, Russian, Japanese, and Swahili. 

In addition to Jemison, six other honorary degree recipients will be recognized at Commencement, including: Val Ackerman, J. Peter Benzie ’70, Sr. Jane M. Gerety, RSM, Dr. Hugh F. Lena III, the late Dr. Francis P. McKay, and Erich Miller.

Val Ackerman is the fifth commissioner of the Big East Conference. Prior, she was an attorney and executive at the NBA, the founding president of the WNBA, and is the former president of USA Basketball. She is a graduate from the University of Virginia where she was a three-time captain and Academic All-American on the women’s basketball team, and received her law degree from UCLA.

J. Peter Benzie ’70 is executive president and global account leader with Broadridge Financial Solutions Inc. Prior to joining Broadridge in 2005, Benzie worked at Prudential Securities, Shearson Lehman Brothers, Chase Investment Services, and Fidelity Investments. He also served on the College’s Board of Trustees from 2009-2018 and served on the executive committee of PC’s campaign, Our Moment: The Next Century Campaign for Providence College.

Sr. Jane M. Gerety, RSM, served as the president of Salve Regina University in Newport, RI for ten years. Before her presidency, she was an executive board officer  and senior vice president for sponsorship with Saint Joseph’s Health System. Prior to that, Sr. Gerety taught at universities and high schools across the country. She graduated from Mount Saint Agnes College, earned her master’s degree from Middlebury College, and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.

Dr. Hugh F. Lena, III joined PC in 1974 and has held many roles such as professor and chair of the sociology department, associate director of the Feinstein Institute for Public Service, and president of the Faculty Senate. He was instrumental in the College’s decision to form the School of Business, and the School of Arts & Sciences and Professional Studies. He also created the Office of Sponsored Projects and Research Compliance, which brought over $13M worth of grants to the College. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame and earned his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Connecticut.

The late Dr. Francis P. MacKay, who passed away on September 9, 2019, was part of the PC commnuity for over 50 years. He served as chair of the chemistry department, vice president for academic administration, and president of the Faculty Senate. He was a champion of diversity and helped create the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Program and the Francis P. and Jacqueline K. MacKay Scholarship. He was a graduate from the University of Notre Dame, earned his master’s degree from the College of the Holy Cross, and his doctorate from Pennsylvania State University.

Erich Miller is president of My Brother’s Keeper, a local nonprofit which delivers food and furniture to families in need. The ministry boasts 4,000 volunteers, including PC students, who make 9,000 deliveries annually. Miller is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.

Together, the seven honorary recipients embody the pillars of Fr. Shanley’s presidency: athletics, financial services, religion, service, women in STEM, and the future of PC.

This year’s commencement ceremony for the graduating Class of 2020 will take place at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in downtown Providence on May 17.